"Stew" is a great moniker for the rock musician-poet-filmmaker, all-around-performing-artist, whose Passing Strange made its bow last week at Berkeley Rep. He's a rich mix of flavors, a bubbling cauldron of ideas and talents, and his latest effort, which takes an autobiographical look at his development as a young black musician, is a kind of spicy recipe based on his life. Some of the ingredients might seem improbable, but the final dish is worth savoring.
Passing Strange takes its title from Othello's description of how he won Desdemona's heart. But as with much of the wordsmithy in this play -- which Stew and partner Heidi Rodewald first developed at the Sundance Institute and which will move on to New York's Public Theater after the Berkeley run -- "passing" is meant to encompass numerous other meanings: passing for white or passing for black, being passed up, passing through, passing on. The word itself has a sense of restlessness that is reflected in the rhythm of the play as well as the music, as it follows Stew's youthful escapades -- a Baptist upbringing in LA and coming of age amidst rarefied surroundings in Amsterdam and Berlin.
Billed as a rock musical, Passing Strange reminds me, not of large-scale spectacles like Tommy or even the old Genesis concerts, but rather of more intimate journeys on the scale of The Fantasticks or Godspell, evincing the kind of wide-eyed naiveté that only comes with canny theatricality. The show traces its origins back to the semi-autobiographical ballads and laconic patter that Stew developed as the front man for a band called The Negro Problem. On the Thrust Stage, he remains front and center as the Narrator, with band members (Rodewald on bass, Marc Doten on keyboard, Russ Kleiner on drums and Jon Spurney on guitar) scattered around the space in "mini-pits." The sets are often just simple chairs and tables and two rolling racks of Annie Smart's well chosen costumes serve as the rich repository for new characters taken on by Eisa Davis, Colman Domingo, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Chad Goodridge, De'adre Aziza. But at the heart of the adventure is Stew's fictional counterpart, Daniel Breaker, as the middle class black youth whose quest to find himself leads from funk and groove to punk to arthaus.
There are a few spectacular moments. Midway through, the actors unveil David Korins and Kevin Adams' white wall of primary-colored fluorescent bulbs arranged Mondrian-like to create an Impressionist version of Amsterdam's Red Light District. When the scene moves on to Berlin, Domingo launches into an amusing pseudo-Sprockets bit that leaves Breaker with a look of thorough confusion. It's the kind of confused look you recognize immediately if, say, you've ever taken someone to see an evening of the Frankfurt Ballet golfing dildos off the end of the opera house stage.
For the most part though, this musical is nothing too heavy. It's more about the infectious joyousness of the music, and the literate and sometimes observant, poetry, which reeks of the wonder of life. But one wonders if a show like this can ever be performed without Stew himself, whose presence is the glue that holds the whole premise together.
Moments of personal resonance crop up in unexpected ways. In the second act, Rodewald sings a plaintive song about loss and Stew, who had been watching his alter ego, suddenly regards his bassist, who is his partner in life as well as art.
"He never saw the point of love without understanding," he says later.
Rodewald fixes Stew in her gaze and says directly, "How about now?"
Passing Strange is clearly still a work in development. The ending, an upbeat drinking song, has a bit of the thrown-together, appended look about it, but it is immediately preceded by a eulogy that would have resonated for anyone who's swum around in foreign places looking for "home" and "family."
From the early previews and reviews on Passing Strange it looks as though everyone is still trying to figure out a category for it -- rock musical? Performance art? Afro-Baroque cabaret? I have no idea what it is, but whatever it is, it's terrific entertainment.
Passing Strange continues at Berkeley Rep through Dec 3, 2006. For further information and tickets visit Berkeley Repertory Theater.