The smoke machines had already given the room a smoky allure as I walked into Playhouse on Park for "Passing Strange." It was hard for me not to think about the old Tune Inn punk club on Center Street in New Haven. That's where I first saw the singular, single-named vocalist/songwriter Stew perform with his band, The Negro Problem, back in the late 1990s. The band stood out for the way it blended soulful melodies with raucous, shouted choruses, moody lyrics with laugh-out-loud comical asides, harmonies with bitter truths.
Like the old Tune Inn, Playhouse on Park has a low ceiling, a wide central stage and a scruffy, friendly atmosphere, not to mention diverse and adventurous audiences. The theater has done a bang-up job recreating the loose, anything-goes club atmosphere that anchors Stew's coming-of-age musical theater spectacle, "Passing Strange." The only major difference between the theater and a basement rock club are the comfortable auditorium seats, which are a blessing.
"Passing Strange" was developed about a decade ago, a collaboration among Stew, his longtime writing partner Heidi Rodewald and director Annie Dorsen (who attended both Yale and the Yale School of Drama, where she developed an fast-paced, anarchic staging style that perfectly suited a manic mind like Stew's).
Stew performed the role of Narrator in the original "Passing Strange," with another performer playing the role of Youth, an approximation of Stew as a young man. The show may be autobiographical, with many specific references to Stew's own life, but lines like, "Some of us are of the belief that art is more real than life," should suggest the artistic liberties that have been taken. It may be hard to imagine "Passing Strange" without Stew narrating it, but in recent years that's exactly what's been happening. It's a mark of a good script that it can be freely interpreted countless ways.
Playhouse on Park makes "Passing Strange" its own.
Much of "Passing Strange" concerns the hero's upbringing in a middle-class black community in California, his conflicted views about family, religion and art, and his trips abroad to "get away from these philistines philistines!" It seems that Youth's sense of community is largely based on who he gets to smoke pot with, but "Passing Strange" is chiefly a moral, soul-searching, culturally conscious show about finding oneself and not hurting others. It could even be considered a Christmas show, since one of Youth's personal epiphanies happens around that holiday.
At Playhouse on Park, this sensitive, sprawling personal odyssey is told with clarity and drama and relentless energy. The original New York production and the subsequent Spike Lee film version were faster and louder, but this one is smart to turn down the volume and make sure that the book and lyrics are clearly enunciated. The staging is carefully casual, the hair and costumes perfectly unkempt. It's all gritty and grand, without shifting to the level of dangerous or overwhelming.
The production is cast with professional actors who hail mainly from Southern states. As The Narrator, Darryl Jovan-Williams vaguely resembles Stew both physically and vocally, but finds his own smooth style (and does so without reading from the script onstage, as Stew did). Youth is played with calm grace and inner fortitude by Eric R. Williams; the scenes where he has to be furious are less convincing than his many charming exchanges with the women in his life, including his mother (Famecia Ward, a beautiful representative of parental responsibility in an otherwise tumultuous youth-driven drama), a harsh Germanic love interest (Skyler Volpe, who has great comic gifts) and an earthier lover (Karissa Harris, taking no prisoners). Volpe, Harris and two male performers (the sinuous Garrett Turner and the studly J'Royce) also take on several other roles, including "a militant essayist," "den mother and social engineer," "a body liberationist" and "a neo-hippy" — folks who shape the values of impressionable Youth.
The four-piece onstage band is drawn from the Connecticut music scene, including guitarist Nick Cutroneo from the New England Guitar Quartet, bassist Sean Rubin from Goodnight Blue Moon, drummer Elliot Wallace from the Hartford Independent Chamber Orchestra and music director/keyboardist Michael Morris, who teaches at the Hartt School. One could make a stink about all the musicians being white for a black-themed show, but Stew was the only black member of The Negro Problem, so there's precedent.
These are skilled, versatile players who can shift swiftly from punk to funk to show tunes. How comfortable are they? At the Sunday matinee, Eric Williams as Youth did a scene in which he borrowed Cutroneo's guitar, played a punk song, and broke a string. Cutroneo spent the next scene blithely stringing and tuning his instrument in view of the audience, while his bandmates capably covered for him.
"Passing Strange" is no passing fancy. It's not at all a strange choice for Playhouse on Park. The theater knows what they want from this script, and they get it. The cast catches a communal groove, dancing and singing with wild abandon. When they urge the crowd to stand up, the crowd does not mind at all. This is a show about growing up, taking chances and making art, at a theater company created for that purpose. For Stew fans, underground club rockers and small theater supporters alike, "Passing Strange" feels real.
"PASSING STRANGE'' runs through Dec. 20 at Playhouse on Park, 244 Park Road, West Hartford. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. The Sunday shows are followed by a talkback with the cast. 860-523-5900, PlayhouseOnPark.org.