The path to self-discovery is well-worn in art, but in the musical "Passing Strange," currently playing at the Firehouse Theatre, new life is breathed into one of our most popular narrative forms.
The brainchild of singer and songwriter Stew, the raucous musical follows an African American protagonist as he flees his middle-class upbringing in Los Angeles to find himself as an artist in Amsterdam and Berlin. While the concept of self-discovery is common, little else is predictable in this ingenious, wholly original work that won the Tony for best book of a musical in 2008.
Set against Chris Raintree's backdrop of music venue scaffolding and musical equipment cases, we see the gradual evolution of Youth, a young man who sets off on a search for "the real." Played with sarcasm, vigor and no small amount of ego by Keaton Hillman, Youth and his cohorts leap through funk, punk, gospel, blues and jazz on his quest to find his artistic voice and sate his need to rebel against society.
Featuring Jeremy V. Morris as the Narrator, Patricia Alli as Youth's ever-worrying Mother, and an energetic supporting cast of Keydron Dunn, Dylan Jones, Jamar Jones and Katrinah Carol Lewis — who all play multiple roles — the denizens of different locales are lovingly, but cuttingly, satirized on Youth's journey. In the first act, the stuffy church of Youth's teenage years and the free love he encounters in Amsterdam are skewered; in the second, the caricatured Berliners are uproarious, especially when they tackle German performance art.
The protagonist isn't spared criticism either. In later scenes, the show mocks him for capitalizing on his newfound cultural currency as a black man in Germany. Playing on the show's title, he is "passing" as someone with a different life experience. It's just one of the ways that the notion of passing plays a role in the show.
Sometimes used in America to refer to people from one identity group passing as someone from another — such as African Americans passing in white society — here, as with so much else, the show flips the idea on its head. It also serves as a reference to the fact that Youth is passing from place to place and lover to lover, avoiding true connection at every turn.
With Stew's witty, biting lyrics, a score by Stew and Heidi Rodewald that sounds nothing like Broadway (at one point, the characters joke that they'd include a show tune if they knew how to write one), references to James Brown and Kurt Weill-esque numbers like "We Just Had Sex" and "The Black One," the show puts culture in a blender and bows to no idols. If pressed for a comparison, perhaps Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" meets "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," might be as close as I could get.
Tawnya Pettiford-Wates' direction keeps a twinkle in its eye while telling truths large and small, and Leilani Fenick's live band expertly dives head-first into a variety of musical styles. Jimmy Fecteau's sound design balances the band and vocals so you can hear every word, and Bill Miller's lighting heightens the action, whether it's in scenes of crude German performance art, or with pulsing LED lights in the shape of rafters during rock numbers.
Though metafictional, the show feels more concerned with entertaining than showing off its cleverness, and because Youth is so unsentimental about his past, it makes the show's heartfelt conclusion about love and art all the more moving. Commenting but also participating in the issues of identity, race and the stories we tell ourselves, "Passing Strange" is a journey entirely of its own.
"Passing Strange" plays through Oct. 18 at the Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad St. For information, visit firehousetheatre.org or call 355-2001.