Tuesday 11 June 2024

Theatre review: Passing Strange

Ben Stones' white wedge of a set, with four musicians stationed around the stage along with the odd prop and piece of furniture, clues the audience in from the start to the fact that we're in for a night of gig theatre. The fact that it opens with a quartet of backing singers arriving on stage to find the star turn hasn't shown up yet, and it takes a few blackouts and resets for the Narrator (Giles Terera) to kick proceedings off, correctly lets us know that there's also a chaotic element in store: Stew Stewart (book, music & lyrics) and Heidi Rodewald's (music) 1970s-'80s-set coming-of-age musical Passing Strange pretty much plays by no other rules than its own. The Narrator introduces himself as Stew so from the start it's implied this piece will be autobiographical, and that he himself is an older version of our young protagonist.

The Youth (Keenan Munn-Francis) grows up in a middle-class Los Angeles suburb, not really matching the expectations for a young black man in his community - notably his Mother's () requests that he go to church. (She herself never goes, because she doesn't like to have to compete with the other ladies' Sunday outfits and everyone's very judgmental.)

When he does finally go he has a kind of religious experience but not the one expected: He connects to the music as a form of expression rather than for its spiritual meaning, and after being drafted into the choir he moves on to form a noisy garage band. As he gets to know the queer choirmaster (Caleb Roberts) he realises he's not the first black person to feel like he doesn't belong, and widens his horizons: The backing group of Roberts, Nadia Violet Johnson, Renée Lamb and Stephenson Ardern-Sodje turns into a busy ensemble of eccentrics the Youth meets in travels including Amsterdam and Berlin.

Although there's a few times when the music resolves itself into songs with a beginning, middle and end (including a hilariously furious piece of German performance art and a full-on Cabaret parody) this isn't a show made of big setpiece numbers: If there's a term for whatever the musical theatre equivalent of stream-of-consciousness is, that's what we get here. The Youth is influenced by his surroundings and the music reflects this as he wanders through both his life and Europe. Liesl Tommy's production often has a trippy feel, which isn't surprising when many of the stages of the Youth's life are marked by the different drugs he takes there.

There are some running themes though, notably the idea of finding the truth through art (although as it's mostly expressed by teenage German punks it's usually a lot more convoluted than that.) The "passing" in the title refers to "passing for white," something the Youth's grandmother apparently did, and he himself spends much of the show trying to pass as something he isn't - his European travels result in some exciting sexual experiences, but invariably the actual relationships fail because the women realise he's keeping his real personality from them. At one point he even does the equivalent of "passing for black" in Berlin: When his new group of avant-garde artistes find his music too middle-class, he invents a thug life background for himself in one of the funnier sequences of the show.

The opening of his taking his time arriving on stage (ironic enough at the Young Vic, with its less-than-stellar track record of starting shows on time) sets the Narrator up as a rock star, and that's what Terera delivers, charismatically controlling the stage. The style of music is also something that kicks off the narrative, with the Youth's love of rock contrasting with what he thinks he's expected to like. He points out his Dutch friends' assumption that if he's a musician he must perform jazz or soul; ironically both are undertones in the music, although mainly because you'd be hard-pressed to find a style of music around in the '70s and '80s that doesn't influence the score at some point.

Munn-Francis also impresses as the central character, his performance building as the Youth tries to figure out who he is and wants to be.has a quieter role to play in the background, but as the Mother she's a melancholy presence reminding us of a life the Youth has perhaps forgotten a bit too enthusiastically. And the ensemble each get to steal the show at least once with their selection of characters, with Roberts lucking out with the lion's share of the most flamboyant figures.

If it wasn't already obvious Passing Strange is a hard show to sum up, which is much of what works so well about it - although it shares elements with other productions there's nothing I can think of that feels similar to the whole. As the show came to a close with a moving number between Terera andI was struck by how refreshing it feels particularly in an American musical, to go through the whole evening without a moment where a massive note gets belted out, just so that a star's ego can get massaged by a mid-tune round of applause. Instead the standing ovation the show got tonight was earned, not just by the cast but by the show itself, which lets itself and its music get taken to wherever the young man's journey takes him, and is all the more unpredictable for it.

Passing Strange by Stew Stewart and Heidi Rodewald is booking until the 6th of July at the Young Vic.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

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