Sunday, September 25, 2011

PASSING STRANGE • New Line Theatre

New Line's season opener rocks.  Literally.  Never letting you forget you're watching a play, PASSING STRANGE challenges the preconceptions about what a musical is -- a musical for people who don't think they like musicals.  It's a high-octane, allegorical, semi-autobiographical account of a musician, Mark Stewart, who goes by the single name, Stew, and his journey of self-discovery.  It opened on Broadway in 2008, garnering a Tony Award for Best Book.

Stew (Charles Glenn) serves as the older, wiser narrator, looking back on "Youth" (Keith Parker) who serves as his rebellious younger self, our Hero for the evening.  Pivotal scenes from Stew's life are played out with Youth, and a fully engaged ensemble.  Strong numbers like, "Baptist Fashion Show", "Amsterdam", and "May Day", shine a full light on the electrifying strength of this cast that a New Line production always promises.

Keith Parker (Youth)
Photo credit: Jill Ritter Lindberg
Youth grows up in a black middle-class South Central Los Angeles suburb.  His church-going single mother (Talichia Noah) longs for the son she adores to settle into the life she imagines for him.  After successfully dragging him to church -- a good ole Black Baptist church where catching the spirit of the "Holy Ghost" is expected, Youth does end up having what he calls a "religious experience".  As it turns out, his encounter with the Holy Ghost has less to do with God, and more to do with his connection with the music.  In that moment Youth finds his calling, while his mother slaps him in humiliation.  Although Youth does agree to join the choir, he soon leaves it to start his own rock band.  In a hazy marijuana induced epiphany with some of the church kids and a deep conversation with the Reverend's flamboyant son Franklin (John Reed II), Youth decides he needs to find "The Real", so he leaves his middle-class familiars behind, and journeys to Amsterdam and Berlin in a quest to try to experience new things and allow his artistic aspirations to flourish.  In Amsterdam he meets up with a group of artistic Bohemians.  In Berlin, he meets up with a group of radical Bohemians.  In both places, in different ways, snippets of "The Real" are glimpsed, and he eventually learns that as important as love is, sometimes unconditional love -- love without understanding, is as real as it gets.  This show wraps up with a sober slap in the face that resonates with everyone -- black, white, gay, straight, whatever.  An emotional reminder of what "The Real" is.

Talichia Noah (Mother), Keith Parker (Youth),
John Reed II, Andrea Purnell, Cecil Washington Jr.,
and Jeanitta Perkins.
Photo credit: Jill Ritter Lindberg
PASSING STRANGE features a terrific cast with fine voices, and Scott Miller, New Line's artistic director and director of this show, always seems to elicit the most from them.  Charles Glenn is arresting as the narrator, with a smooth rich voice that held the evening together like glue.  Resembling the real-life Stew, Glenn fits this role like a glove.  Keith Parker's tireless "Youth" is impressive throughout with an excellent voice as well.  Talichia Noah is loving and heartbreaking as Mother.  Under Miller's rock-solid direction, the ensemble members of PASSING STRANGE were absorbing in all of their characterizations -- whether as a group of conservative church folks, free-loving Dutch hippies, or revolutionary young Germans.  They all had their moments to shine, and Jeanitta Perkins was fierce in all of her parts, especially Desi, one of the militant Germans.  John Reed II was terrific as the Reverend's pot-smoking son, and incredibly commanding and funny as Venus, the German performance artist.  Cecil E. Washington Jr. had some great moments as Hugo and Andrea Purnell was a turbulent Sudabey, a "postmodern pornographer" whose porno films feature "fully clothed men making business deals.”  Ha!  There is no choreographer listed in the program, but damn these kids can move!  (Hard for me to take my eyes off of Cecil Washington Jr.  during "Amsterdam").

Cecil Washington Jr. (Christophe), Jeanitta Perkins (Renata),
and John Reed II (Joop).
Photo credit: Jill Ritter Lindberg
The costume designs by Amy Kelly were straightforward with simple accoutrements to effectively distinguish the array of characters.  Todd Schaefer's scenic design was clean with a couple of benches, chairs, a table and a brick backdrop with exposed little spaces.  This backdrop, when coupled with Kenneth Zinkl's lighting design that illuminated through the open spaces added much to the mood of several visually beautiful scenes, and the New Line band was tight, and handled the score wonderfully.

It's a brilliant show with memorable performances and amazing songs.  Actually, I'm buying the cast-recording the second I post this entry.  In short, go see it.  I'm not kidding.

Charles Glenn (Narrator).
Photo credit: Jill Ritter Lindberg

Book/lyrics by Stew
Music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald
Directed by Scott Miller, assistant director, Nikki Glenn
Washington University South Campus Theatre, 6501 Clayton Road
through October 15 | tickets: $10 - $15
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm 

Charles Glenn (Narrator), Keith Parker (Youth), Talichia Noah (Mother), Jeanitta Perkins (Sherry/Renata/Desi), Andrea Purnell (Edwina/Marianna/Sudabey), John Reed II (Rev. Jones/Franklin/Joop/Venus) and Cecil E. Washington Jr. (Terry/Christophe/Hugo).

Costume design by Amy Kelly; scenic design by Todd Schaefer; lighting design by Kenneth Zinkl; sound design by Donald Smith; stage manager, Trisha Bakula.

The New Line Band:
Piano/conductor, Justin Smolik; lead guitar, D. Mike Bauer; rhythm guitar, Aaron Doerr; bass, Dave Hall; percussion, Clancy Newell.

1 comment:

  1. I loved, loved, loved this. Cast was amazing, band was amazing. I'll see it again.