The Passage to Manhood

By Geary Danihy

Over 90 years ago, Warner Brothers released “The Jazz Singer,” starring Al Jolson. It was the story of young Jakie Rabinowitz, who runs away from his home and his Jewish heritage to become a jazz singer. Ultimately, his father’s illness brings him back home, and he sings Kol Nidre as the spirit of his father hovers nearby.

Fast forward nine decades to Playhouse on Park in West Hartford and we have “Passing Strange,” directed by Sean Harris and exuberantly choreographed by Darlene Zoller, in which a young black man, simply called Youth (Eric R. Williams), a neophyte songwriter and musician, rejects his heritage and leaves his home and his mother in search of his Muse, traveling first to Amsterdam and then to Berlin, gaining experience and lessons about the heart, only to be called back to Los Angeles, his home, at the news of the death of his mother.

If it worked once, why not again? This time around, the music is a blend of hip-hop and rock, and the young man’s experiences are a bit more physical and visceral, but the plot line, delivered by the Narrator (Darryl Jovan Williams), remains essentially the same. With book and lyrics by Stew and music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald, this artistic coming of age odyssey (in German it’s called a Kunstlerroman) is nothing if not energetic. The cast of seven, including Famecia Ward, Karissa Harris, Skyler Volpe, J’royce and Garrett Turner, backed by a hard-driving quartet of musicians, is in almost constant motion throughout the entire two-plus hours of the show, generating enough energy to power most of the businesses on Park Road. The actors roam and romp freely about the thrust-stage area and often invade the house with a lot of in-your-face antics that both titillate and ignite the audience.

But...does this work? The answer is yes and no, for there are times when things get just a bit muddy and you are not sure what is happening or, more importantly, what is being sung. Though the musical is not entirely sung-through, there are many moments that can only be explicated by hearing the lyrics, sometimes a difficult task.

However, there are other moments, and they are many, when things are crystal clear, as when our “hero” equates gospel with rock in the "Blues Revelation/Freight Train" number, or in the over-the top “It’s All Right” number, which is reprised after the curtain. There’s a humorous satire on French New Wave films and a lengthy Berlin sequence that has the Youth participating in a May Day riot (in which scenic designer Emily Nichols’ set is de-constructed to successfully evoke chaos), which leads to "The System Does All Kinds of Damage,” with Turner intimidating the audience with his character’s existential/nihilistic mantra. When it’s suggested by the inhabitants of a Berlin hostel that the Youth doesn’t belong because he hasn’t suffered enough, Williams bewails his former life as an oppressed black youth (all fabricated), which garners him accolades and acceptance and leads to the witty “The Black One” number.

Oddly enough, this is also a memory play -- or musical -- for if you note the footwear worn by both the Narrator and the Youth, you realize that the two characters are one in the same, separated by decades and experience. This, which is subtly hinted at through costume and dialogue in the early parts of the musical, makes the final funeral scene, when Narrator and Youth confront each other, especially poignant. A question, however, might arise -- is the link just a tad too subtle? Would “Passing Strange” be more comprehensible, and more moving, if the connection between the two characters was more overt from the start? Well, maybe it is -- all you have to do is look at the photograph on the cover of the show’s program to get the message (would that the photo have included the red, low-cut sneakers both characters wear).

The musical’s title is an allusion to a line from “Othello (“She swore, in faith 'twas strange, 'twas passing strange”), but it can also refer to light-skinned blacks “passing” for whites (something Youth’s grandmother did), as well as the Middle Passage, part of the journey into slavery for millions of Africans (Youth, having become “The Black One,” performs a number in chains that alludes to this). Finally, the title can also refer to the always strange passage of time, if reflected upon in retrospect, that allows Youth to mature into the man he will become (hence the “Passing Phase” number sung by the Narrator and Youth near the end of the show). Whatever the interpretation, and even though the musical had a Broadway run that was well received (and was subsequently filmed by Spike Lee), the book could still use some trimming and some of the musical numbers could be shortened without ill effect.

This is a multi-faceted work that is probably best appreciated with a second viewing -- if you know “what’s going on” you are more likely to fill in some of the blanks yourself, musical numbers that seem to stand alone upon first viewing will generate connections, and allusions will be more easily grasped. In any event, kudos to Playhouse on Park for opting to stage this somewhat challenging work, and to a cast that, if nothing else, gives its all to help make for an evening of theater that, while demanding, will resonate on many levels during the drive home.

“Passing Strange” runs through Dec. 20. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to www.playhouseonpark.org

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