Raymond O. Caldwell, Producing Artistic Director of DC’s Theater Alliance, makes his Signature Theatre directing debut with the Tony Award-winning rock musical “Passing Strange”—a show that is a little bit absurdist comedy, a lot stomp-your-feet musical with an intriguing dash of meta narration that plows right through any semblance of a fourth wall, even bringing things right up into the house. There’s little to find fault with here because you are so busy having such a good time. The play—book, and lyrics by Stew and music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald—is billed as “a celebration of Black art, music and joy,” but after experiencing the performance, it would seem that even “celebration” is a bit too modest a word.
…you are so busy having such a good time…This is one production that is not to be missed.
“Passing Strange” presents the story of a young man, credited simply as “Youth” (Deimoni Brewington), who feels suffocated and stifled. He is a musician without a song, an artist who’s floundering without purpose;. He sets off for Europe in search of “the real.” The various iterations of “the real” that he encounters ironically start to make him less and less so. He morphs, bends, and twists his music and himself in order to align with the people and places that all seek to stake their claim on his voice.
As deep and ideological as some of these themes seem, the play is at its heart a fun and rousing musical that makes a convincing point about not taking yourself too seriously. The young man—traveling from South Central LA in 1976 to Amsterdam and then on to Berlin—very much undertakes a quintessential coming-of-age journey that involves a host of strange and spirited characters who all enigmatically lead him one step closer to “the real.” From a tarot-reading, pot-smoking spiritualist to a leather-masked, doll-punishing S&M performer, the people that the “Youth” meets all have pretty evocative stories of their own to tell—and as any good musical would have, they almost always do it via song.
The success of this production comes largely from the amazing array of song-and-dance numbers that it contains. There is the quirky and laugh-out-loud “We Just Had Sex,” the play on punk rock “Sole Brother,” and the highly danceable “We Might Play All Night.” And yes, the show does come complete with a little dancing in the aisles. Of course, what would the musical numbers be without the thrilling cast behind them. An ensemble of seven, the performers leave absolutely everything they have out on that stage. Guided along by the Narrator (Isaac “Deacon Izzy” Bell), the actors create a world that audiences are certainly able to get lost in for a couple of hours.
Bell as the Narrator is everything you want him to be and so much more. He’s funny and quirky, smooth and also awkward when the moment calls for it. His voice plays so well within the intimate space of the ARK Theatre that it powerfully and profoundly touches all who hear it. Brewington as the “Youth” does a brilliant job of personifying naïve innocence struggling to grow into its own adulthood. The supporting cast around these two also hit brilliant notes of their own while each taking on multiple roles. In particular, Tobias A. Young as Mr. Franklin, as well as the sadomasochistic Mr. Venus, manages to quite handily steal some pretty intense scenes. While Alex De Bard as Marianna and Edwina is a wonderment of deep, vocal talent combined with playful physicality.
It is Caldwell’s direction that sets the tone, that intuitively leads this pack through a circuitous yet enjoyable maze of song, dance, comedy, and drama. Caldwell’s feel for staging moments and for cleverly utilizing an otherwise bare-bones stage to grand effect is impressive. The stage itself consists of a somewhat idiosyncratically interpreted grunge theme consisting of surprising, illuminated graffiti. Jonathan Dahm Robertson’s set design handles the intimacy of the ARK setting wonderfully. Alberto Segarra’s lighting and Eric Norris’ sound design also prove that they are clever architects of theatrical illusion when it comes to this space, while Danielle Preston’s costume choices just add to the heart-pounding, foot-tapping fun. “Passing Strange” lives up to its title inasmuch as it is “strangely” different from your more conventional musical fare, in a beautifully surprising way. This is one production that is not to be missed.
Running time: Two hours and 15 minutes with one intermission.
“Passing Strange” runs through June 18, 2023 at the Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206. For more information on Signature’s show-related events and tickets, the Box Office is open in-person or by phone 703-820-9771, Monday through Sunday: 12 pm – 8 pm. Phone service begins 11 am on days with matinee performances or go online. Masks are always optional but strongly encouraged in the lobby and other public areas of the building. Face masks are required inside the performance spaces on Thursdays and Sundays. Face masks are optional but strongly encouraged inside the performance spaces Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.