"PASSING STRANGE:" AN ELECTRIFYING ROCK MUSICAL

Bonnie Goldberg

Think a rite of passage. Like Pippin or Ulysses, a journey of self-discovery, a search for reality, a rebellion against the mundane. West Hartford's Playhouse on Park is embarking on its own journey of discovery as it mounts "Passing Strange" by performance artist and poet Stew for book and lyrics, with music orchestrations by Heidi Rodenwald, in collaboration with Annie Dorsen.

This autobiographical piece was workshopped in two sessions at Sundance in 2004 and 2005, one of the only ones invited back for a second round of development, and enjoyed a brief turn Off- and on Broadway before its final performance was filmed as a movie by Spike Lee.

Playhouse on Park's Artistic Director Sean Harris is both passionate and proud about this new production. "It's coming along beautifully, with the right ensemble, the right personalities, the right design team. I feel strongly that the top people are involved. The band is on stage, interacting, and the audience is involved, being constantly surprised and immersed in the action."

"Passing Strange" is the story of a young African-American, a singer/songwriter, named Youth who wants to escape the religious restrictions of his Los Angles middle class upbringing and venture off to Europe to find himself. His journey lasts from his age 14 to 22 as he experiences and experiments with the artistic life of Amsterdam and Berlin, discovering along the way women, drugs, art and politics, from Amsterdam's illicit pleasures to Berlin's militant intrigues. Youth is unhappy with his old life and he plunges himself into a pioneering adventure similar to a Josephine Baker or a James Baldwin, seeking a new reality and a definitive home.

To Harris, the music is compelling and crosses many genres from gospel to punk to funk to rhythm and blues, all "under the umbrella of rock. The music serves to drive the show...and serves the story every moment." It's as if Youth "has his own sound track." "Passing Strange" is not an opera but the music is central to the story and the choreography created by Darlene Zoller is memorable.

Playhouse on Park may only be the fourth regional theater to tackle the show, "touching as it does on so many relatable concepts like beliefs, family, identity, love, becoming an artist." Because it taps into so many levels, Harris was very careful in his casting. He asked at auditions if you were familiar with the piece? What did you like about it? How does it speak to you about your life? Connections were important in this tale of "escaping what's behind you to find a higher sense of what it means to be an artist."

For tickets (preview $15, single tickets $32.50-42.50), call Playhouse on Park, 244 Park Road, West Hartford at 860-523-5900, ext. 10 or online at www.playhouseonpark.org. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. until Sunday, December 20.

Sean Harris hopes the audience will "open their eyes to different cultures and a different type of theater. In a time when we divide ourselves it will divert everyone for two hours in time and provide an experience to relate to and enjoy." He wants everyone to be "emotionally invested and not casual, not sitting back but completely immersed, to feel this singular story of this man with a distinct lifestyle and color and be inexplicably drawn into his world."

Clearly Sean Harris and his cast have taken ownership of this rich and unusual undertaking, putting their personal stamp on it, with a freedom of vision that is rare. Come experience an "emotional ridiculous roller coaster ride, with high levels of exuberance that just may break your heart."

 



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