I think the bottom line for any memoir is how truthful is the story and how artful is the telling? For a musical I think the question is always how important was it that the story be told in music, and how successful was the music in amplifying the emotions of the story? I'm happy to say that the fledgling Sidecountry Theatre has delivered on all counts with their compelling and brilliant production of "Passing Strange". With book and lyrics by Stew, music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald and originally created in collaboration with Annie Dorsen, this is a deeply personal story of a middle-class African American young man and his journey from America to Amsterdam to Berlin in seach of what is "real". Although that trip involves some pretty extreme experiences, the overall arc of the story never feels hyped or theatrically exaggerated. In the end we feel that we have grown to know a quite ordinary man as he lives through a familiar and exceptional time of personal growth. All set to exceptional and rocking music performed by an invested and talented ensemble and accompanied by a terrific back-up band.
Originally Stew was the man telling his own story in this show, but for this production LeRoy Bell has taken on that task. Noted as a singer (he was a finalist on "America's Got Talent") in this show it is equally important that he be authentic and sincere, and he manages that with ease and confidence. It always feels like it is the storyteller's voice telling the story, and never a performer. As his younger self, Andrew Lee Creech was excellent in creating a character who always felt human-scaled, filled with doubts and uncertainties that equally matched his ambition and quest for meaning. The entire ensemble in this show had the challenge of portraying a quite wide range of characters and making them all feel believable, at the same time that they each had to be new discoveries.
In particular, I loved the way Marlette Buchanan played the Mother with a blend of All-American normalcy matched by a very deep and genuine heart, a real love for her son at the same time that she never really understands what drives him. Both Yesenia Iglesias and Shontina Vernon played a wide variety of roles with finesse and charm, even when those characters were quite outrageous. The same was true for the performances of DeSean Halley and J Reese, with Mr. Reese especially vivid as the sadly unfulfilled Mr. Franklin and the totally over the top Mr. Venus. In all of these performances the direction of Tyrone Brown kept the characters firmly in the hands of the actors and the action of this rather long production fast-paced and evenly developed. The music was terrific throughout and their was a wonderful variety and energy to every number.
Sidecountry Theatre is setting very high standards for itself and this production is a most impressive calling card. More importantly, it is a fine example of how each of us has a significant and unique story in our own experience, and how that can be brought to the stage in a way that makes us understand who this particular man was, and how his life was, except in particulars, so much like our own. "Passing Strange" is a fine production of a worthy and quite exceptional show.