PASSING STRANGE by Stew, Heidi Rodewald and Annie Dorsen (Acting Up Stage/Obsidian). At the Opera House (735 Queen East). Runs.
PASSING STRANGE by Stew, Heidi Rodewald and Annie Dorsen (Acting Up Stage/Obsidian). At the Opera House (735 Queen East). Runs to February 5. $35-$55. passingstrangeto.com. See listing. Rating: NNNN
The east ends Opera House is the perfect venue for the Toronto premiere of this rocking Broadway musical about a young Black songwriter who travels through Europe in the 70s and 80s on a musical journey of self-discovery.
Just as funny as it is insightful and moving, the plot is presented as the memoir of an on-stage narrator (Beau Dixon) who, guitar in hand, punctuates his stories with wall-rattling blues riffs. The narrator provides context and commentary for the main story in which his younger self (Jahlen Barnes) decides to leave his middle-class home in suburban Los Angeles to develop as an artist.
The musical travelogue takes us from gospel choir songs in his local Black church, to noisy punk in his familys garage, psychedelic and folk in Amsterdam and militant art rock in Berlin, with funk, soul and disco vibes also in the mix. In each locale, the unnamed youth comically grapples with fitting in and struggles to assemble and express his authentic self through a variety of genres.
Backed by an awesome live band on stage, strong vocal performances by Dixon, Barnes and the rest of the cast make the catchy songs sound huge in the cavernous space. At times it felt a little restrictive to be confined to the seats brought in for this show the music takes you well beyond head-bopping and toe-tapping territory. Helming his first-ever musical, veteran director Philip Akin maximizes the comedy in the already very funny script, but also teases out some very poignant interplay between the narrator and his youthful self that the original production (and the subsequent Spike Lee film) lack.
While theres plenty in Passing Strange about Black experiences that make it an excellent choice for Black History Month viewing, the shows exploration of artistic and personal identity, memory and family resonates powerfully regardless of ones background.