There is a gem of a theatre up in Osseo Minnesota called Yellow Tree Theatre that has put on some really good productions the last few years. Passing Strange is perhaps their most accomplished production that I’ve seen. A Tony Award winning (Best Book) musical that takes the musical form in a unique direction. Breaking the fourth wall from time to time and eschewing traditional musical style songs, we’re taken on a journey rather than being told a story. The journey is of a young man, a songwriter, and his quest to find what is real. The way Passing Strange is narrated, it’s easy to see its influence on Hadestown. I also saw the influence of Rent on Passing Strange. It is through these connective tissues that we try and understand something like Passing Strange that feels familiar and yet wholly new. Passing Strange will speak to young artists just starting out. Those of us who are older will see a lot of truth and it reminds us of what it felt like to be young and searching.
Malo Adams plays the Narrator, the role originated by the co-author of the musical Stew. Adams stands on a stage behind a music stand holding a guitar which he plays throughout the show as he tells us through song and dialogue about our hero, the Youth. Right from the start we’re all in with Adams because, well frankly, he’s so damn cool. You could almost sit and watch him perform the show without anyone else. When he breaks the fourth wall and speaks to the audience, you feel like the cool kid whom, you didn’t think even knew your name, does and is trying to engage you in some friendly banter. Adams performance alone is worth the cost of admission. He’s accomplished in everything he does on stage and this feels like a an opportunity to see someone special doing something great, and those chances don’t come along very often. The Youth is a young black man growing up in L.A. who revolts against anything he sees as phoney, which includes the people at the church his mother drags him to. The Youth, who is male in the story is portrayed by Valencia Proctor who is female. I didn’t sense that the gender change was done in order to open up new ways of looking at the work as it was in the Guthrie’s recent production of The Tempest. I may be wrong but I took it to be a positive step towards breaking down gender barriers in casting. Having seen Proctor’s performance, I’m assuming she was simply the best person for the role. I’m sure most audience members had to listen closely at the beginning to make sure we understood that an actor who was clearly female was playing a male character. Once I was clear that’s what was happening, I was able to forget about it and view Proctor as the Youth. And in case it wasn’t clear, she was fantastic in the role.
We follow our hero as he joins the church youth choir not because he wants to be in the choir, but because the hot girl who normally wont give him much notice, appears excited when she thinks he is joining. An example which is one of many throughout the play about the paradoxical nature within the youth. He hates going to church and doing normal things because it’s phoney, but when faced with an attractive girl, he is willing to be something he isn’t. This will be repeated throughout as he moves from L.A. to Amsterdam then onto Berlin. We don’t criticize him for these hypocrisies, because we recognize the idealism of youth living in conjunction with the reality of desires and needs. Whether it’s misrepresenting his past in order to avoiding being kicked out of the house, he’s staying in or adopting a style for his music that doesn’t reflect inner artist, he’s doing what we all do. He’s putting on a different face for different situations and it isn’t being a phoney, it’s being human. Part of the joy of the show is all the different people he encounters on his journey. There are four actors who play multiple roles in L.A., Amsterdam, and Berlin each of them making the new characters distinct, some radically opposed to the last one they played. It’s a talented cast who appear to be having a great time with each new character and accent.
Passing Strange was co written by Stew and Heidi Rodewald and this production was directed quite inventively by Austene Van. Jeff Bailey is the Music Director and his band who is on stage and in view of the audience is really good, some of them even have some funny bits of dialogue. The Scenic Design by Justin Hooper gives the impression of the band and narrator playing in a club in front of a brick wall looking a little above the performers below, suggesting they have a little distance and perhaps time from what we are seeing and can comment more truthfully on what is transpiring. Lighting Design by Sarah Brandner did a nice job of reinforcing this perspective, guiding our eyes with her lighting as Adams directed our thoughts with his voice. All around, this is a first rate production of a Musical that I was unable to see before now, this isn’t going to play at Chanhassen, and when it’s produced again in the Twin Cities, it will most likely not feature Malo Adams. For this reason, you should get out to it while it’s on stage at Yellow Tree Theatre.
Passing Strange runs through May 8th for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://yellowtreetheatre.com/passing-strange.
Don’t miss a single review from The Stages of MN, on your computer from the home page on the right enter your email address and click subscribe, on your mobile device scroll to the bottom of the page. Also Follow me on Facebook, search @thestagesofmn and click follow and on Instagram thestagesonmn.