In this musical the coming-of-age story is familiar and there are so many excesses it would take five columns to list them all. There is no scenic design to speak of. And often, the narrative arc of the storyline is muddled beyond comprehension. And to top it off the music, which weaves itself intricately into the dialogue, is frequently challenging.
And yet, this is the most exciting show on any stage right now, and maybe the most involving one that has appeared in some time. You will be a poorer person if you don’t find a way to see it before it closes on June 3.
It’s Passing Strange at Karamu House, featuring music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald, with book and lyrics by Stew. Jammed with full-tilt energy and invention, the rock musical “goes there” in virtually every scene and every moment, and it’s a freaking rush.
In this autobiographical journey of Stew’s we follow the Youth, a young African-American man and music-maker who starts off by barely tolerating his mothers’ church in south central Los Angeles. After reaching an epiphany of sorts by smoking week with the pastor’s son, the Youth decides to find himself and “the real” by going on a drug and sex tour of Europe.
Segueing from hash to acid and from punk rock to psychedelic, the Youth spend his youth on a search for himself. Meanwhile, his mother pines for him back home, connecting with him intermittently over the phone.
If this all sounds like a tired old story format to you, the presentation is anything but tired. Right from the start, when the Youth’s mom switches back and forth from a cartoonish black woman dialect to a more nuanced voice, you know you’re in for something different.
In the demanding role of the Youth, Justin C. Woody sings with both poignancy and passion, and he keeps the whole enterprise humming with his infectious energy. As the Youth travels from Amsterdam to Berlin, Woody conveys his character’s wide-eyed innocence and desperate desire to find, you know, something.
He is well matched by Darius J. Stubbs, who plays and sings the narrator as the older and more temperate man who was the Youth. But Stubbs is also capable of kicking out the jams, as he does in the rock anthem “Work the Wound.”
Those performers are supported in glorious style by Treva Offutt, who is hilarious and touching as the Mother. And the four-person chorus—Carlos Antonio Cruz, Joshua McElroy, Mary-Frances Miller and CorLesia Smith—each add stellar cameo characterizations that are so sharp you could cut yourself if you’re not careful. Specifically, keep an eye out for Cruz’s decadent-to-the-max Mr. Venus, Smith’s insightful Desi, Miller’s spot-on punk rocker Sudebey, and McElroy’s vulnerable Terry.
The entire cast handles the singing with aplomb, backed by the fine vocalist Chantrell Lewis and a four-person, kickass band led by Ed Ridley, Jr. Director Nathan A. Lilly has taken this material, which is surprisingly witty and wise (as one character says, “Life is a mistake that only art can correct.”), and ignited his cast so they inhabit a galaxy of characters with different accents and attitudes.
Passing Strange covers a lot of years, a lot of miles, and many musical genres. And the 2½ hour show doesn’t have a single boring minute in it. Anywhere. Do yourself a favor and don’t miss any of those minutes.
Through June 3 at Karamu House, 2355 East 89 St., 216-795-7070, karamuhouse.org.