You’ve graduated high school and want to be a musician. Your hovering mom wants you to attend church, get a good job and marry a nice girl from your middle-class neighborhood. Your gay choir teacher urges you to go to Europe, and get in touch with your inner artist.
So what do you do? If you are the rebellious young seeker in the exuberantly offbeat Broadway musical “Passing Strange” (now in its Northwest debut at ACT Theatre’s Bullitt Cabaret), you tune in, turn on and hit the road in the late 1970s for Amsterdam and Berlin. You find your bliss in sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll and politics. And, in classic identity-search fashion, you hunt avidly for “the Real.”
That you are an African-American kid is a major factor in this wickedly, candidly satirical yet heartfelt theatrical rite of passage, which in the Sidecountry Theatre production has a talented and vivacious cast, and a charismatic narrator:popular local singer-songwriter LeRoy Bell.
This isn’t Bell’s life — the sardonic, affectionate book and lyrics constitute a quasi-memoir by the New York musician Stew (real name: Mark Stewart), who also composed the music with Heidi Rodewald.
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But in his first theater role, Bell is so effortlessly natural and ingratiating, as actor and singer, he makes this story feel like his own.
Bell guides us in catchy song and wry spoken word through the bumpy odyssey of Stew’s young self, the archetypally named Youth (an engaging Andrew Lee Creech). Like many a rebel, this kid can be naive and callow, and callous when he rejects his loving mother (sweetly played by Marlette Buchanan) and all she represents.
He disses his bourgeois upbringing, exults in his expat freedom, exploits the European boho romanticization of African Americans. And inevitably, he learns some tough lessons about love and responsibility.
Stew and Annie Dorsen, the director who helped him develop the piece at Berkeley Repertory Theatre and later in New York, have shrewd fun with the inherent clichés (and truisms) of the classic road-to-maturity fable. The show’s musical palette swabs in shades of punk rock, hard rock, soul and gospel sounds, delivered with aplomb here by a combo led by Jose Gonzalez.
“Passing Strange” (the title echoes a line in Shakespeare’s “Othello,” with a double meaning of racial-cultural “passing”) has a genially unconventional format for a Tony-nominated musical.
Clearly the outgrowth of extensive improvisation, it smoothly juxtaposes song and story on a minimal set. Four versatile actor-singers (J Reese, DeSean Halley, Yesenia Iglesias and Shontina Vernon ) deftly cover multiple roles as the friends, lovers and mentors Youth encounters at home in Los Angeles, in an Amsterdam commune and in a (broadly parodied) political collective in Berlin.
Director Tyrone Brown tucks the energetic action and Crystal Dawn Munkers’ choreography quite neatly and smartly into a small arena. Gonzalez keeps a firm lid on the instrumental volume during quieter exchanges (though some lyrics get lost when the band lets loose).
A bigger Broadway stage allowed “Passing Strange” to stretch its wings. (A Spike Lee film of that production feels, oddly, claustrophobic.)
The intimate Bullitt brings us closer to Creech’s sometimes misguided yet always relatable Youth. His bittersweet homecoming may be a little pat, true. But in the end, he’s keepin’ it real.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org