Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Passing Strange at the New Rep

[This is the first guest review from Lisa, my theater buddy.]

It’s a musical! Or is the current term “rock opera”? I walked in to the New Rep’s production of Stew and Heidi Rodewald’s Passing Strange knowing nothing about this show except that there would be music and I HAD to see if it ever came to Boston. I walked out very happy I had finally seen it on stage. (I was told to wait to watch the Spike Lee “movie” version until after seeing it live, but I still haven’t done that.)

Cheo Bourne is well cast as Youth, rebelling against his mother and religion while questioning his identity as a young black man and looking for his place in the world--first in his own Los Angeles neighborhood and then abroad in Amsterdam and Germany. Cheryl D. Singleton as Mother is outstanding, especially in her final number. The four actors cast in multiple rolls (Kami Rushell Smith, De’Lon Grant, Eve Kagan, and Maurice E. Parent) also do amazing jobs in their many parts and with multiple accents. Especially good are Parent as Mr. Venus and Kagan in all of her roles but mostly as Mariana. The weakest link in an otherwise outstanding cast is Clif Odle, who just doesn’t seem to have the raw energy or vocal range to keep the pace of the show going as quickly as it should. [Stew annoyed me sometimes in the Broadway production, but I really missed him here. --Mel]

This tale has been told before (is anything really new anymore?) but the music makes it fresh and totally worth the price of admission. I enjoyed the way the music reflects where they are in the story physically. L.A.’s gospel sounds of the mother’s church and the psychedelic “Must Have Been High”; the happy, boppy tunes in Amsterdam; and the cold, harsh, angry songs in Berlin. The choreography and staging in “We Just Had Sex” is cute, clever, and so well done. I wish the director of the Philharmonic's recent concert production of Company had copied it.

The set design is simple yet effective, with the occasional use of projections to help set the scene but without ever intruding on the action. And the lighting was spectacular. [I actually prefer the New Rep’s lighting design for this show to Kevin Adams’s often-repeated neon lights (Spring Awakening) and wall of blinding white lights (Next to Normal) on Broadway. -- Mel]

While the musicians were all excellent, the sound quality for the show was mediocre at best. It got somewhat better after the first number but was never quite as good as it should have been. (And much of the audience was a little lost since the first song is so important in laying out the show.) While I did not see this show at the end of the run, I did see it more than a week after it opened. The technical issues should have been worked out already, and the problems definitely detracted from my enjoyment.

Overall I had a good time at this show and look forward to seeing the actors in future productions around Boston. However, this show could have benefited from a better sound system and faster pacing.

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