PASSING STRANGE: A Rock Musical
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
At: The Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad Street, RVA 23220
Performances: September 4 –6 previews; opening September 7 – October 18, 2019
Ticket Prices: $20/student; $25-30/military & RVATA; $30-45/general admission
Info: (804) 355-2001 or firehousetheatre.org
All musicals are not created equal. Passing Strange, billed as “a new rock musical” is a semi-autobiographical tale of a young man’s search for his identity – “the real.” Nothing out of the ordinary in that but Passing Strange is written by Stew and his partner Heidi Rodewald, musicians with the band The Negro Problem.
The upbeat and energetic score is made up of rock and roll infused with gospel, blues, jazz, and punk rock. A four-piece band led by musical director Leilani Fenick is placed prominently on a platform upstage center, and occasionally gets drawn into the onstage action. Jeremy V. Morris, the narrator, hypes up the audience, introduces the band, narrates the story, and occasionally merges into the story. It soon becomes clear that the Narrator is an older version of the lead character, an unnamed Youth played by Keaton Hillman in what I believe is his first leading role.
The Youth’s search for identify takes us from a middle class home in South Central Los Angeles in the 1970s to a communal family of young artists in free-spirited Amsterdam to a collective of revolutionary performance artists in Berlin. Ironically, it is the German anarchists who teach him the value of family – but not before it is too late.
The tightly knit ensemble – Patricia Alli, Keydron Dunn, Keaton Hillman, Dylan Jones, Jamar Jones, Katrinah Carol Lewis, and Jeremy V. Morris – has no weak links, with each of these performers giving their all throughout the two-act musical that runs about 110 minutes, with one intermission. They act, dance, sing, and set the stage, moving large black packing crates, sometimes discretely wiping their streaming faces with conveniently stashed towels as they pass one another.
Ahh, passing – now there’s a word packed with symbolism. The actors pass one another on stage. The Youth passes through the spaces and stages of his life. Time passes from Youth to Narrator. Blacks passed for white in order to get better jobs. The Youth passes as a poor young man from the ghetto to achieve artistic recognition. Black actors pass themselves off as white Europeans. And Stew, who played the role of Narrator in the original production, was inspired, in passing, by none other than Shakespeare whose Othello, the Moore of Venice uttered the phrase “passing strange” in Act 1, Scene 3.
Passing Strange is directed by Tawnya Pettiford-Wates (Dr. T.), and it seems that her projects (e.g., last season’s An Octoroon at TheatreLAB The Basement) often deserve at least a second viewing and a talk-back, if not an entire seminar. Dr. T.’s staging, along with dynamically interwoven choreography by Christine Wyatt, a recent graduate of the VCU Dance program, keeps everyone moving at a swift pace that frequently contains hints of the minstrel show. The show is largely comedic until the final two scenes, but even the humor is rich in historic, racial, ethnic, sexual, regional, and cultural references. Some may be familiar, some may pass over the heads of many, and others fly by so fast that even the knowledgeable might miss them while savoring a previous nugget.
While this is clearly an ensemble masterpiece, there were standout moments and roles. I’ve seen Keaton Hillman perform in supporting roles in VaRep’s 1776, and The Wiz, and Richmond Triangle Players’ A Chorus Line, handle puppets in the Children’s Theatre’s Mr. Popper’s Penguins, and portray a snake in The Heritage Ensemble Theatre Company’s
The Dreamseller and the Forest Dweller and deliver a tear-jerking monologue in Oedipus: A Gospel Myth at The Firehouse, but this is his first leading role. He nailed it. He was silly and frustrating, frustrated and innocent. Sometimes you wanted to shake him, and other times you wanted to hug him.
Jeremy V. Morris was part hype man, part mentor as the Narrator, sometimes watching, sometimes guiding, sometimes participating. We, the audience, didn’t know what to expect, but what he gave was just what was needed. Jamar Jones, who often shares a stage with Morris, used his malleable expressions to create a host of characters, from an LA youth to bible thumping preacher, from a gender fluid artist to a macho ex-boyfriend. The versatile and highly skillful Katrinah Carol Lewis also played several characters, but the one that made the strongest impact on me was Desi, the revolutionary artist who believed that the only thing that really matters is love. Keydron Dunn’s repertoire of characters included Mr. Franklin, the closeted gay son of the Baptist preacher. He initiated his newest choir member with a weed-smoking session in his car and introduced his youthful proteges to more than just harmonies and hymns. That made The Youth’s rejection of him all the more painful and poignant. Patricia Alli portrayed the mother with empathy and realism, all while maintaining a high level of first humor and later drama. Last but not least was Dylan Jones, making her Richmond debut, delightfully portraying three characters that ranged from teen-aged seductress to pornographic performance artist.
Chris Raintree’s simple set of a raised platform for the band and moveable boxes and chairs to create the environments through which the Youth passes was enhanced by lighting by Bill Miller, including some colorful LED lights on the walls. Alex Valentin’s costumes were appropriate but largely unremarkable – until the Mother’s final scene in which she appeared in the beautiful rose-colored gown she had dreamed of in Act One. September and October are busy months for theater and dance in Richmond, but I hope to squeeze in one more performance of Passing Strange before it closes October 18, and I highly suggest you get there as soon as you can. I wouldn’t be surprised if tickets become scarce after words get out about this one.
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
Photo Credits: Bill Sigafoos