Passing Strange

by Stu Brown

Kudos to Playhouse on Park for staging the provocative, seldom-produced musical, Passing Strange. The story about a young, middle class African-American youth on a journey of self-discovery and identity is one of the Playhouse’s most fully realized shows in its seven-year history.

The show is a hybrid of sorts -- equal parts staged concert, narrated ruminations, and traditional theatrical presentation. As the show unfolds we are introduced to the Narrator (Darryl Jovan Williams) who, throughout the musical, provides ongoing commentary -- by words and song--on the odyssey of the Youth (Eric R. Williams). He is adrift in life, yet moved by his creative impulses. The Youth’s church loving mother (Famecia Ward) prods him to take hold of his life as do others, but to no avail. Eventually, his self-exploration and experimentation takes him to Europe -- Amsterdam and Berlin -- where he hones his art and begins to ascertain his role in the world.

The book by Stew and Heidi Rodewald explores topics that can be viewed through the lens of student developmental theorist, Arthur Chickering- -- Developing Competence, Managing Emotions, Moving through Autonomy toward Interdependence, Developing Mature Interpersonal Relationships, Establishing Identity, Developing Purpose, and Developing Integrity. They adroitly incorporate these themes to show the maturation of the Youth. The musical can be breezy and compelling. The construction at times resembles a cabaret act or a performance art piece.

The songs, composed by Stew and Heidi Rodewald can be energetic and rambunctious or melancholy in tone. They serve as a raucous and pensive illustration of the action on stage. You won’t be humming any of the tunes, but their melodic hooks, coupled with the forcefulness of the tight four piece band, makes for a unique and enjoyable theatrical score.

The cast is fully in sync with each other, which gives the production a seamless and well-balanced quality. Darryl Jovan Williams is one cool dude as the Narrator. He is affable and gregarious, but also nimbly displays a tinge of regret and pathos in his soul. Eric R. Williams is convincing as the lost Youth seeking the answers to life, art, and love.  Famecia Ward gives the Youth’s mother a sympathetic reading. The ensemble of Karissa Harris, Garrett Turner, Skyler Volpe, and J’Royce skillfully manage their multiple roles within the musical. None of them disappoint when it is their turn to shine.

Director Shawn Harris successfully takes all the creative elements of the production to achieve a harmonious whole. He deftly manipulates the actors around the small stage, forcing the audience’s attention to be constantly in motion. He effectively guides the cast members performing off center stage, whether they are emoting, chattering or gesturing, to be important components of the musical. They add to the overall ambience of the show as opposed to sacrificing the attention of the audience.

While Darlene Zoller’s choreography is minimal their seemingly improvised bursts add a charged dynamic when integrated into the show.

Special mention to Lighting Designer Marcus Abbott for his imaginative and mood setting design. They reinforce the musicals emotional impact and atmospheric venues.

Passing Strange, thought provoking and superbly rendered, at Playhouse on Park through December 20th.

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CONNECTICUT CRITICS CIRCLE