Now at Salt Lake Acting Company is one of the most exciting, vibrant shows I’ve seen on a Utah stage in recent memory. The Utah premiere of Passing Strange, a one-of-a-kind coming-of-age musical by Stew, Heidi Rodewald and Annie Dorsen, brings to life a rarely-performed show that, until now, local theater geeks could only experience through its underappreciated soundtrack and a 2009 documentary directed by Spike Lee. In SLAC’s thrilling staging, Passing Strange will hopefully win over a whole host of new converts.
The musical is a bildungsroman, led by a wry narrator (Lee Palmer), about an aspiring artist known only as Youth (Carleton Bluford). In a comfortably middle-class Black neighborhood in L.A., Youth feels stifled by the expectations of his mother (Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin) and his conservative church community. Inspired by the gospel music of his church choir, Youth finds a community of fellow church misfits, tries drugs and starts a rock band. Still in search of what he calls “the real,” Youth migrates to Europe, where he connects with groups of bohemian artists, sex workers and political radicals in Amsterdam and Berlin. As Youth’s journey of self-discovery inspires a series of awakenings—emotional, sexual, artistic—he grows increasingly distant from his home and family.
From its opening notes, Passing Strange jolts audiences with its unique point-of-view—the brainy book and score draw from inspirations and reference points far beyond the typical musical repertoire. Characters reference fellow European expatriates Josephine Baker and James Baldwin; there are half-serious, half-winking, half-sincere evocations of radical politics and experimental performance art; the music draws from soulful gospel, 1970s punk and acid-tinged psychedelia. At one point, the band plays a few bars of a traditional showtone before the Narrator interrupts. “We don’t know how to write those kind of tunes,” he says, and the song shifts into a strange parody of European avant-garde cinema. If this all sounds a touch too pretentious, know that the show is frequently laugh-out-loud funny, especially in the buoyant first act.
Even when Passing Strange premiered on Broadway in 2008, it was far from the only musical to borrow heavily from rock music. Still, Passing Strange’s score stands out for both its tunefulness and raw, exuberant energy. Aided by an excellent live band—whose backing vocals, unfortunately, could be hard to make out over the instrumentation—this music is clever, raucous and totally unique. Performing the songs with organic, head-thrashing choreography by director Todd Underwood, the ensemble balances loose, spontaneous-seeming intensity with harder-than-it-looks musicianship. The minimalist scenic design, by Halee Rasmussen, and dramatic lighting design, by Jesse Portillo, capture the musical’s rock concert energy. While, at its core, the story of Passing Strange is a simple one, these details make this idiosyncratic production stand out.
A rare musical with an all-Black cast, Passing Strange’s exploration of racial identity is casually profound. While Youth’s search of belonging and self-discovery will be relatable to many audiences, the musical is particularly rooted in his own Blackness. Characters grapple with the legacy of slavery, while Youth feels pressure to fit into a narrow vision of race—a church crush advises him to “Blacken up, but not so much that you become unhireable or anything.” In Europe, Youth finds some of the acceptance that he struggled to get in America, but stereotypes have followed him—in Berlin, his music only wins acclaim when he describes a life in the projects at odds with his comfortable upbringing. In an interview with Salt Lake, Underwood said the questions raised by the script inspired unusually vulnerable conversations between him and the cast. Passing Strange compares the protagonist’s travels to an archetypal hero’s journey, but Youth’s specific experiences as a Black man adds unique urgency to his artistic and personal coming-of-age.
Led by Underwood’s fluid direction, the musical’s seven-member cast is uniformly excellent. Playing the Youth’s lovers, LaToya Cameron and Kandyce Marie are hardly one-dimensional muses. The chameleonic Jamal A. Shuriah transforms as the Youth’s friends across continents. Brian Kinnard is a frequent scene-stealer—in Act I, he’s a trapped preacher’s son whose only outlets are smoking weed and transforming “Onward Christian Soldiers” into a Sunday-appropriate rumba; in Act II, he is a freaky German performance artist. In a wonderful performance, Bluford captures both Youth’s naivete and (often unearned) swagger. He maintains the audience’s sympathy even when making painful mistakes and learning hard lessons. Darby-Duffin portrays the mother and son’s strained relationship with pathos that never turns cloying. Playing the role originated by co-writer Stew, Palmer has a difficult task. I had a hard time imagining the Narrator performed by another actor—the music and story felt so particular to Stew’s vision. Luckily, Palmer succeeds at making the character his own, while maintaining a poignant connection with Youth—the characters have an unspoken bond as the narrator watches what may well be a younger version of himself. Passing Strange develops into a tough, heartfelt portrait of the joys and costs of self-expression, but even in the musical’s darker second act, it’s the kinetic creativity that shines through.