Dallas — Walking into the current set at the in-the-round Theatre Three feels like finding your seat at a rock concert. Close—it’s Stew and Heidi Rodewald’s 2008 Tony Award-winning, genre-shifting rock musical.
Lights move across an atmospheric haze, a photographer snaps photos of the chatty, eager opening night crowd of every age, ethnicity and hairstyle. People are waving to each other across the theater, where set designer David Walsh has stretched high runways from one angle to the other, covered them with exotic, fringed Persian rugs and embedded at stage center the show’s music director and keyboardist Pam Holcomb-McClain and her tight band: Lincoln Apeland on acoustic guitar and keyboard 2; Randy Linberg on drums; Brian Coleman on percussion; and Peggy Honea on bass.
It’s an edgy, wide-open and inspired move by always-daring director vickie washington to put the musicians within arm’s length of front row fans. Ryan D. Schaap designed the telling costumes, and the show is richly lit by Aaron Johansen.
What we’re seeing is the regional premiere of a show created by songwriter-musician-playwright Stew, telling the semi-autobiographical story set in 1976 of an African-American teenager from South Central Los Angeles raised by a single mother. But it’s not the story you’ve been trained to expect. Nobody in the cast has anything to do with “hustling dimes on mean street.” In fact, they’re all living the “two-story mansion middle-class dream,” complete with peach paint and “art on the walls from African tribes we never even heard of.”
The show begins with a prologue by the Narrator (a riveting Calvin Scott Roberts), stage center and drawing us in like the wise gypsy narrator in The Fantasticks. As this compelling singer comments on the action played out by a dynamite multi-role ensemble and a Youth (an innocent Darren McElroy), we realize the budding wannabe musician is the Narrator’s younger self. McElroy’s Youth is yawning callowness itself at the outset, but his jaw tightens in determination as his urgency to make real music grows.
The score is driven by a rock beat, interspersed with lyrical ballads, jazz and rap, with just a twist of rhythm and blues. This mash-up of songs and styles works to skewer expectations about the outcome of our hero’s picaresque search for “the real,” as he departs his church choir beginnings and exits for an experimental, existential, epiphany-filled European tour.
Witty and ironic from the get-go, Roberts’ Narrator delivers his zingers with the sting of a practiced comedian, as when he comments on his early “religious experience.” When the Youth’s Mother (an energetic, crystal-voiced Nikka Morton) drags her son out of bed to go to church on Sundays, the knowing Narrator recalls she shifts from her normal voice to her “negro dialect” when she goes into scold mode. Refusing to don his polyester jacket, the Youth chants his Buddhist oms, and tells his mom “the church is all about shoes,” and “as phony as it gets.” The Narrator is sympathetic in his satiric song: “Baptist Fashion Show?” On the other hand, when the gospel choir sings, “Music is the Freight Train in which God Travels,” you might want to hitch a ride.
The storyline emerges quickly, as the Youth leaves behind the church folks, including the gay, pot-smoking preacher’s son Franklin (a hilarious, effervescent Cam Kirkpatrick in one of several risqué roles), whose dulcet words roll over the Narrator “like a Bach fugue.” The Youth abandons his funny-awful adolescent punk garage band, and takes off for Europe to find his own voice and “the real”—whatever that entails beside the blazing billboard sign that lights the stage every step of the pilgrimage.
A clever spoof of Fellini noir films, in which the narrator shrugs Italian and smokes stylishly, marks his departure, while Mother wrings her pretty arms in a body plead.
The songs tell the story of the journey. The big numbers in the first act range from rousing rock to touching ballad, all arising from short dramatic pieces featuring the strong, multi-talented ensemble of singers and actors in the roles of the latest friends and lovers.
“Amsterdam,” an ode to the people and the city of free love, clearly marketed paid love and legal pot, is a joyous song of freedom. This city “made Berkeley look like the Bible Belt,” our Narrator confides. The hero falls in with a communal group that includes a gorgeous man (Quintin Jones) who’s a philosophy professor and part-time prostitute. “I hook; therefore, I am,” he declares. The Youth “sits in a café like Baldwin in the day.” (Allusions to the great African-American wrier and activist James Baldwin abound in the show, and Stew and Rodewald later wrote a tribute musical to him titled Notes on a Native Song, which opened in 2015 at New York’s Public Theater.)
The youth’s epiphany blooms into song when gentle Marianna (a beauteous, pliable Ayanna Edwards in one of her spirited lover roles) gives our stunned black American hero the keys to her flat the first night they meet. The delicately orchestrated “Keys” is the most moving love song in the show, delivered by McElroy and Edwards with a sense of rapturous discovery.
Filled with the lightness of being and communal sex, the Youth decides paradise is right here and now; everybody’s sweating and glowing and the band is definitely “Starting to feel real.”
The darker lessons of Europe take place in Act II, when the action muddies a bit. Then our guy takes up with a neo-Marxist fraulein in black leather named Desi (a strident, sexy Cherish Robinson shifts to German and convinces us she’s a pale blonde) in “Berlin: A Black Hole with Taxis.” Here, he’s also introduced to the revelations and mayhem of speed, plus a sharp satiric number on bad performance art, featuring Kirkpatrick in leather drag. In a startling confounding of identity, the Youth whores his blackness on a cabaret market. “The Black One,” the genre-bending ensemble number in the second act, is both funny and wrenching at once.
Through it all, Roberts’ strong, reassuring Narrator steps in, guiding the audience and the Youth through the complexities of the search for that rare substance, “the real.” We feel his pain and growth as the music sweeps him back to his roots in America for a potent, bittersweet taste of that element he’s been searching for on another continent.
In Passing Strange the Youth bravely comes home to America, having led the expat life during which “they taught me how to wear my body.” That was the 1980s—and the sentiment remains poignant. Last year, Atlantic star writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, amidst racist murders and campaign rhetoric, moved with his family to France because he feared for his son’s very life. In his Pulitzer Prize finalist work Between the World and Me, Coates writes: “Here is what I would like you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.” Perhaps this brilliant writer, too, will return to America; if not, we have lost a critically bright light.
On opening night I sat next to a handsome white-haired woman, an artist, who told me she was born and raised in the Netherlands, but moved to New York and eventually to Dallas. “I loved Amsterdam, but I wouldn’t move back now. Too much has changed,” she said.
Perhaps our real safe haven is the art we make and share, wherever we are.
If you're looking for a place to experience passionate art by committed artists, hightail it to Passing Strange.
» Read our inteview with Calvin Scott Roberts