By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 20, 2010; C01
In the recipe for a melodically charged serving of "Passing Strange," you can, it seems, leave out the Stew.
The rocking songwriter known professionally by that single moniker was the chief ingredient in the strong critical response to this autobiographical musical, which had a modest 165-performance run on Broadway in 2008. As the show's star, lyricist, author of its Tony-winning book and co-composer of the music with Heidi Rodewald, Stew seemed a veritable one-man band, even though he was surrounded by a cadre of other musicians and actors.
Now, Studio Theatre's 2ndStage has taken Stew's voluble personality out of the mix, handing over the duties of the evening's touchstone narrator to Jahi A. Kearse. If anything, the casting change affirms that "Passing Strange" can stand without the shimmer of Stew's aura. What appeared to have been a piece tailored to a singular talent proves with this rousing production to be a broader musical statement, about the tension between an artist's egocentric mission and a man's duty to the people he loves.
Stylistically, "Passing Strange" tries to push the boundaries of musical theater -- it's as much a concert as a play -- but the story itself is surprisingly conventional: a portrait of an artist attempting to break free of his roots, only to discover he can't move on without a reconciliation with his past. This struggle is a bit cliched as a musical subject; its familiarity diminishes the show's adventurous luster. Yet there is a wry crispness to Stew's musings about a young black man finding his voice (and inflating the scope of the challenges of his bourgeois life), and an infectious appeal to the eclectic palette of songs through which the tale vividly speaks.
The musical charts the progress of a character called Youth (Aaron Reeder), from a restless adolescence in south-central Los Angeles to a wing-spreading young adulthood in Europe, among free-love types in Amsterdam and snarling avant-gardists in Berlin. Kearse's omniscient narrator, it turns out, is the older incarnation of this young man, whose unfocused creative energies cry out to be tempered by experience and a more forgiving nature.
It's apparent in director Keith Alan Baker's clarifying production that "Passing Strange" apportions juicy roles to many of the supporting players. Baker has more than doubled the ensemble, to 15 from the original seven. Enhanced by Helanius J. Wilkins's buoyant choreography, songs such as "Welcome to Amsterdam" and "May Day" now unfold like bona fide production numbers. The actors playing a variety of incidental characters make lovely impressions, among them Eric R. Williams as a rhythmically challenged drummer in a garage band; Jessica Frances Dukes, playing a Dutch devotee of sex and drugs; and the divine Deborah Lubega, in a turn as a Berlin revolutionary running a collective of artistic anarchists. Costume designer Kristopher Castle's clever get-ups give the Germans the look of a glam-punk motorcycle gang.
The production satisfies an admirable goal of the 2ndStage program: showcasing emerging performers. In this case, some are so fresh that they've yet to earn their union cards. (Virtually all of the actors are African American, and the ensemble's depth is a reminder that even at this late date, it's a talent pool that remains undertapped in these parts.) Baker has guided them all with the same level of technical command he brought two summers ago to a musical with another set of complex working parts, "Jerry Springer: The Opera."
From that offering, he has gratifyingly moved up the ranks one of the standout ensemble members, Reeder, who here plays to sterling effect the central role. Stew is no rose-petal memoirist; he looks back with a healthy appreciation of hypocrisy. In the scathing second-act number, "The Black One," Reeder expertly details Stew's cynical survey of images of black men in the popular imagination. But Stew comes down hardest on the young man in question, who in pursuing an artistic identity distances himself to a needlessly callous degree from his devoted mother (Deidra LaWan Starnes). As she points out to him in a transatlantic phone call, "Your deep concern for yourself is really moving."
The musical -- staged in Studio's raw upstairs space on Giorgos Tsappas's simple set of a benchlike platform, with Christopher Youstra leading a terrific four-piece band -- feels on some level like an attempt to expose this painful error of youth. A wonderful observation is made late in the evening, about how terrifying it is to consider that the course of one's life is based on the decisions of a teenager.
It's Kearse, as the present-day incarnation of that Youth, who delivers this wisdom, one of many wise moments in a moving, cannily controlled performance. If Stew tended to spin across the evening like a strengthening twister, Kearse offers more measured meteorological force. This alters the atmosphere of "Passing Strange" just enough to let us fully enjoy a wider range of Stew's vivacious landscape.
book and lyrics by Stew, music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald. Directed by Keith Alan Baker. Lighting, Justin Thomas; co-director, Victoria Joy Murray; projections and sound, Erik Trester; dialects, Kim James Bey. With Sean Maurice Lynch, Shaunte Corrina Tabb, Dereks Thomas, Juan Carlos Sanchez. About 2 1/2 hours. Through Aug. 8 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Visit http://www.studiotheatre.org or call 202-332-3300.