Premiering back in 2006, the musical Passing Strange finally had it’s premiere in Toronto after countless remounts including a successful Broadway run that resulted in seven Tony nominations and one win and even a film adaptation by Spike Lee. The story follows a young unnamed boy named Youth (Jahlen Barnes) as he leaves his comfortable religious upbringing in South Central, LA in the late 1970’s to find himself in Europe, specifically Amsterdam and West Berlin with music being core to his road to self discovery.
In the past year the alternative musical Hamilton has become a phenomenon with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s rapping historical epic featuring a predominately black cast reignited the passion for theatrical experiences for a new generation. A play that likely would not have been possible without Passing Strange providing an early template for success. While Passing Strange does not feature any rapping, it mixes a variety of musical styles like gospel, punk, industrial, spoken word, rock, jazz and more.
The play from the get go establishes that the fourth wall is something that comes and goes at will as the show starts with the Narrator (Beau Dixon) introducing him to the audience letting them know that he and the stage band will be our guides on this journey. Narrator is a stand in for Stew the creator (and original star) of the show and we learn quickly that this is his life story as both the Narrator and Youth are wearing the same pair of red Converse Chuck Taylor’s.
Thematically the production hits plenty of high notes that cause the viewer to get quite introspective. For a show that debuted in 2006, the subjects are just as important today, if not more so. An early number is Baptist Fashion Show, which debates the sociopolitical impact of Christianity on black culture in the United States before Youth has his own epiphany where music was his savior while in church rejecting religion all together. Youth’s Mother (Divine Brown) adds not only a celebrity figure to draw in crowds but her stunning vocal work that showcases her multi octave range is on full display, making her brief appearances absolute show stoppers.
The show was far funnier than originally expected with early highlights being Mr. Franklin (David Lopez) as the closeted pastor’s son who exposes Youth to European culture and marijuana. The hilarious song We Just Had Sex, which takes place after Youth travels to Amsterdam and one by one we learn he sleeps with one of the girls, then the other then it is revealed that all five characters (two females and three males) had fun together.
Jahlen Barnes shines as the wide-eyed Youth, as we are on this path of self-discovery just like he is. The supporting cast of role players consisting of Lopez, Peter Fernandes, Sabryn Rock and Vanessa Sears are the glue of the production. They play multiple small parts each, giving them all their own world and voice and throughout the show they all slip into accents that are easily sustained including German and French.
The first act is divided up between the gospel influenced South Central, before shifting to the hippie commune vibe of Amsterdam where Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles are all major influences for a light hearted trip of enlightenment. By the time we get to the second act it is more like if Cabaret took place in an S/M club set to early heavy metal and industrial music. The stage band was capable of playing everything allowing the play to easily shift tones without missing a beat. Drummer Steven Foster was a highlight as his style leads the way to play each new genre of music. Along with Narrator, each band member also sings back up vocals augmenting the actors and providing music when the actors aren’t performing as well. A hilarious moment of breaking the scene occurs when the band and the actors argue about influential music looking from todays lens of artists from that time period.
One of the most exciting aspects of the show is that it takes place at The Opera House, which was built in the late 1800’s as an opera and vaudeville venue before becoming a movie theatre then in recent decades a concert hall. This built in history and natural acoustics worked to the advantage for a production built on rock and excess. The floor was filled with tables to give a relaxing atmosphere, while also allowing the cast to weave through tables during parts of the performance.
In the end this show is about wisdom and what we do with it when we finally acquire it. Not everyone needs to run away to find themselves, but sometimes making mistakes and having your heart broken allows for a new level of self-discovery. The show is quite funny for the first three quarters, but the final scenes are quite touching, as Youth must come to terms with tragedy and his own errors while it is more bluntly revealed that the Narrator and Youth are the same person. This is the type of show that will appeal to not only theatre lovers, but music lovers as well as most of us subscribe to the idea that music is religion for us.
Passing Strange runs at The Opera House until February 5th. Tickets can be purchased HERE. Special thanks to penelopePR, Acting Up Stage Company and Obsidian Theatre Company. Photo of Vanessa Sears, David Lopez, Divine Brown, Jahlen Barnes, Peter Fernandes, Sabryn Rock, Beau Dixon shot by Racheal McCaig Photography.
Listen to my interview with Divine Brown on Contra Zoom HERE.