PASSING STRANGE: More than ‘the real’

The cast of Passing Strange. Photo by Andrew Brilliant/ Brilliant Pictures.

 Passing Strange, book and lyrics by Stew, music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald, New Repertory Theatre, The Charles Mosesian Theater, Arsenal Center for the Arts, 5/1/11-5/22/11, http://newrep.org/passing_strange.php.

Reviewed by Becca Kidwell

New Repertory Theatre’s production of Passing Strange examines a classical theme in a post-modern construct–the quest for the meaning of life.  Like Candide and Pippin, the youth in Passing Strange leaves his familiar surroundings to find “the real” or the meaningful existence but finds only more illusion and more questions.  New Rep’s masterful presentation carries the audience along the journey, earnestly hoping the youth will find what he is looking for.

If New Repertory Theatre uses even half of the talent from Passing Strange for their fall production of Rent, they will have another hit on their hands.  The vibrant cast of Passing Strange electrifies the concert-style stage with their performances. Cliff Odle anchors the show with his performance as the narrator.  He takes us through the youth’s life, knowing a little more than we do; he is reflective and not simply an observer.  The youth, played by Cheo Bourne, seeks for a larger meaning than his middle-class, suburban existence.  Cheo Bourne brings both an innocence and egoism typical of a young adult.  Unwilling to hear his mother’s pleas, the youth goes off into the world–thinking that the world will provide his raison d’etre. Bourne’s innocence is transformed slowly, but steadily, into painful experience; fortunately is never far from the shadow of the narrator.

Cheryl Singleton portrays the mother.  Singleton conveys the warmth and genuine love of a mother towards her son.  In fact, she does this so well that one cannot help but wonder why the youth leaves her.  But the answer is in the question; the youth is a youth and will not yield to the knowledge and experience of his mother.  However, his failure to connect with his mother leads only to a failure to connect with other women as well.  Cheryl Singleton creates “the real”, the love, the trust that the youth does not find in all of his travels.

The rest of the cast portray the various characters that pass through the youth’s life.  Eve Kagan morphs from character to character bumping into the youth as he goes along his way.  Her most poignant moment comes as Mariana, the woman he spends time with in Amsterdam; she seems crushed at the connection that is met and lost, but never diminishes as she moves through the story.  Kami Rushell Smith plays the self-assured females that all women would like to be.  As Edwina, Renata, and Desi, she always is in control and is always strong.  The self-assurance does not seem like Bourne’s youth; the confidence of Smith’s characters is real and honest.

De’Lon Grant goes from conservative extremes as a reverend and fellow band-mate to wild and outrageous Hugo in Germany.  Grant’s characters continue to show off his skill past the hero and villain of Cymbeline to these more quirky personalities.  Maurice E. Parent is unrestrained as Franklin, Joop, and Mr. Venus.  Even as the preacher’s kid, Parent shows the dangerous potential within his character.  The band plays another vital character as the emotions and anima of the story.

The concert/performance style setting makes the show more like a “happening” or storytelling ritual; this method produces a more intimate environment between the audience and the actors as they play off of each other’s energy.  Like Pippin, we are invited along on a journey of growth;  although the situations are more vivid than those of our own lives, they are not different.  New Repertory Theatre’s Passing Strange gathers us all together and shows us how we can find “the real” through love and connection.  TNETG.  5/7/11.

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