Art is a Gateway Drug to Realness: “Passing Strange”

The cast getting down. Photo Credit: Nikolai Alexander

Presented by Moonbox Productions
Written by Stew with collaborator Heidi Rodewald
Orchestrations by Heidi Rodewald
Directed by Arthur Gomez
Music direction by Julius LaFlamme
Choreography by Elmer Martinez 
Intimacy consulting by Olivia Dumain 
Band: Miles Ahlstrom, Hector Saint-Hilaire, Sahil Warsi

12/10/21 – 1/1/22
South End / Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA
Boston, MA
Moonbox on Facebook

Critique by Kitty Drexel

BOSTON – I was today years old when I realized that “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is an bacronym for LSD, the psychedelic drug made famous by Harvard Professor Timothy Leary. It took watching Moonbox Productions’ Passing Strange on Saturday afternoon to figure it out. Several hours and a weak tea later, I realized I was a total square.

Passing Strange rejects conventional modes of musical storytelling. The Narrator (Davron S. Monroe who sings the role so sincerely it might have been written for him) functions in dual modes as the Youth’s (Ivan C. Walks) inner monologue and storyteller. It is operatic; the musical’s narrative is sung more often than it is spoken. Spoken dialogue has a stream of conscious rhyme scheme. 

It is a rock ‘n roll. Our heroic Youth leaves his Mother’s (Maria Hendricks) warm arms to find himself in art. He transcends R&B Gospel with marijuana to discover Funk and LSD. Our Youth moves from L.A. to Amsterdam. LSD brings him to the Punk scene and PCP. He moves from Amsterdam to Berlin. He gobbles each genre up and spits out their secrets without learning anything about life or love.  

On his journey, he meets a circus of strange characters played by Soneka Anderson, Yewande Odetoyinbo, Anthony Pires Jr, and Chantal Tribble. It takes a change of monumental proportions to find his home among homes. 

Most folks will know Passing Strange from its 2008 cast album. Moonbox’s live performance sounds different. It’s the same music but, because live performance is always preferable to even the most brilliant of recordings, the experience is better. 

Davron S. Monroe is stellar as the Narrator. Ivan C. Walks is quietly rebellious as the Youth. Maria Hendricks delivers a thoughtful performance with high highs and low lows as Mother, but the role’s music is too low for her. 

It is the ensemble that makes the show as good as it is. They work together as supporting background characters to create depth in scenes that don’t require it such as an act one moment in La Franklin’s car, or in act two’s Mr. Venus Cabaret in Berlin. Each actor played their secondary role as if it carried the same narrative weight as a lead. A sequel could be created from Yewande Odetoyinbo’s rendition of “What’s Inside is Just a Lie.” The inmates of NowHaus deserve their own decolonialized, deconstructed musical performance art exhibition to celebrate their emancipation from the meta-capitalist, post-modern theatre culture.  

In Moonbox’s production, the audience is placed directly in front of the stage. Cast members are so close that they watch us watch them. It puts us on level footing. The cast and band are there to entertain us, and it becomes our job to be entertained. We aren’t allowed to sit and receive the story like we would in front of the TV. We’re responsible for visibly responding to the cast.

Photo Credit: Nikolai Alexander

Our audience was small on Saturday. The ensemble selflessly threw their infectious energy out to the audience like kindling for a flame. Their interest in us got us interested in the show. We needed all of the help we could get. 

Thanks to the efforts of the cast and the other members of the audience, the performance was successful. We clapped and danced at the urging of Monroe and Walks. There was even some soft chanting behind our masks. Passing Strange deserves a large audience. We were mighty grateful to the cast for giving us the same performance they would give a much larger house.  

A gentle suggestion to anyone with sensitive ears. The onstage band rocks! But it can get a little loud even with the drums behind a sensible partition. Some attendees may want to bring earplugs just in case. I carry some with me in case of migraines and used them. They didn’t detract from the performance. I think I enjoyed myself more because I knew how to care for myself.

Additionally, the kickass set by designer Lindsay Fuori and killer lights by designer Aja M. Jackson may overwhelm the eyes of some patrons. The LEDs make the set look like a psychedelic Lite Brite. If you have glasses you wear around bright lights or any other self-care remedies, you may want them.

Approximate Run Time: Passing Strange plays in approximately two hours and thirty minutes with one intermission.

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