The Surreal Rock of Stew on Broadway

passing_strangeHas the influence of pop and rock music on the Broadway musical ever been more evident than this season? The Tony nominees have been announced, and all four nominated musicals feature scores heavily influenced, in varying forms, by pop or rock. Of the newcomers, no show pushes the boundaries of how people might look at a Broadway musical more than Passing Strange, which has landed at the Belasco Theatre after having been previously produced at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, then off Broadway last spring at the Public Theater.

The show is a semi-autobiographical story of an artist’s journey and search for self-fulfillment. Its star and creator, Stew, AKA Mark Stewart, founded the critically acclaimed Los Angeles band The Negro Problem in 1995 (and also has among his credits the composition of a song for Spongebob Squarepants). Stew serves as the narrator, commenting on the story of his younger alter ego, referred to as “Youth” in the show and played by the impressive Daniel Breaker. Unhappy in his hometown of Los Angeles in the late '70s, Youth travels first to Amsterdam, then Berlin, in his efforts to find himself. In the process, Stew deals with issues such as life and art, family, reality, and music, which is ever-present throughout the show, whether it be in the form of full songs or background. Such a story may sound familiar, but, to his credit, Stew brings freshness and a unique point of view to it, and he handles the story with some skill. Culture is also an important element in the story, including how the different cultures Stew/Youth experiences impact his music.

When Passing Strange opened on Broadway in February, it received strong reviews, and has been rewarded with seven Tony nominations, including Best Musical. It will compete with In the Heights and its Latin/salsa/pop infused score, Xanadu’s '80s ELO and disco songs, and Cry Baby, with a score largely made up of new songs sounding like those from the emerging rock and roll scene of the mid '50s.

Passing Strange is part rock concert, part Broadway musical. While I’d have to say that Passing Strange is not exactly my cup of tea, and I certainly did not take to all of it, I very much respected what Stew and his collaborators set out to do. I was never bored, there were parts that I liked, and I was touched and moved by the concluding moments. I do think Passing Strange qualifies as a Broadway musical more than a concert, even if, at times, it does feel like a concert version of a musical, which we are seeing more and more often. It tells a clear, linear story, and there is real theatricality to Passing Strange; Stew is a charismatic, commanding, and ingratiating presence.

I grew up in the '60s, and the first Broadway musicals that I saw were musicals from the so-called “Golden Age,” which I have always loved. But I also can appreciate rock- or pop-infused shows – I’m a big fan of Spring Awakening, and Dreamgirls is probably my favorite Broadway musical. For me, Passing Strange did not work nearly as well as those shows did. The story meanders at times, and the rock songs did not particularly register. Some of the more traditional theater-like songs were attractive, and, in fairness, there are many people who have loved and been excited by this score. There certainly was much to admire and appreciate, too. The show provides some laughs, and I particularly liked the Amsterdam section, along with the touching and involving final scenes. Passing Strange has no traditional Broadway sets, but there is some strikingly effective lighting (by Kevin Adams), particularly in the Amsterdam scenes.

The cast of seven, including Stew and Breaker, does strong work. Eisa Davis was particularly noteworthy in her sympathetic portrayal of Youth’s mother. Stew’s band includes four other people, notably The Negro Problem bandmate Heidi Rodewald (bass, vocals), who was co-author of the music along with Stew.

Passing Strange did not blow me away or thrill me in the way it has so many others. I didn’t connect to parts of it; but I admired it, and I basically liked it, although I don’t know if I have any interest in seeing it again. Artistically, I think there are real merits to the show, and it will unquestionably speak to many people. If Passing Strange can reach out to people who are not frequent theatergoers and expand the boundaries of what we call musical theater, that is all well and good. If you are a theater fan, or if what I have described intrigues you, give Passing Strange a shot, and judge for yourself. It may not be for everyone, but it is an often bold and worthwhile addition to the musical season, and certainly adds to the diversity of musical styles and flavors now on display on Broadway. - James Miller

Stew

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Mr. Miller is a former Showtime exec who has spent many an evening transfixed by the bright lights of Broadway and Off-Broadway.

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