note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Sheila Barth
The New Repertory Theatre concludes its season with a bombastic production of 2008 Tony Award-winning musical, “Passing Strange,” that’s so visually and physically energetic, it leaves the audience - not the cast - gasping for air, wriggling and clapping in its seats.
New Rep Artistic Director/Director Kate Warner and this stellar cast’s enthusiasm is so catchy, nobody escapes unaffected.
“Passing Strange” is just that - kinda strange, yet simplistic, as it passes along, scene by scene. A colorful narrator tells his story of when he was a young suburban Los Angeles resident whose music - not his minister’s sermons or his mother’s pleas - moves him to chart untested waters in Europe. After serving with the church’s youth choir, led by groovy, weed-smoking youth choir director, Franklin (multi-talented Maurice Parent, who also portrays Joop and virile, acrobatic Mr. Venus), the Youth wants more. He heads to Amsterdam, the Promised Land; the real City of Angels, he declares, then to West Berlin, where he becomes immersed in decadent philosophies involving drugs, sex and artistic creativity.
Besides Eric Levenson’s three-tiered set that resembles a rock concert, with Todd C. Gordon and the orchestra centrally located, along with graphic videos and scenic still photos, New Rep’s sterling cast reaches out and touches our every emotion in every scene. Kelli Edwards’ fast-paced choreography keeps the cast in step, while Karen Parsons’ lighting and Aaron Mack’s sound design change effect and mood as swiftly as the actors change accent and persona.
Cliff Odle as the Narrator reminisces through song and story about his passage from questioning youth in 1976 to resolved adult, in which he soulfully finds himself and the real world. Winsome Cheo Bourne is his youthful counterpart, known only as the Youth. And Cheryl D. Singleton adds touching, understated impact as Youth’s patient, loving mother.
Shedding and donning Gail Astrid Buckley’s costumes in rapid-fire changes are handsome De’Lon Grant, whose voice rings out clearly as the minister’s son, Terry, free-loving Frenchman, Christophe, and German coffeehouse heavy hitter, Hugo; while the lovely Kami Rushell Smith tosses off her usual good-girl image, musically belting out anthems and political messages as Edwina, the teen-age goddess, Frenchwoman Renata and Youth’s German political activist lover, Desi.
Eve Kagan as choir member Sherry, French free-loving Marianna and German decadent Sudabey is another powerhouse, who embraces and revs up the audience with unabashed verve.
“Passing Strange” isn’t for everyone. While most theatergoers will be awestruck with this cast’s unrelenting energy and the crew’s barrage of special effects, conservative theatergoers would probably prefer “My Fair Lady” or “The King and I”. Maybe they just don’t get it. This musical is an entertaining tour de force that vibrates with a raw, throbbing beat.
BOX INFO: Two-act musical, book, lyrics by Stew, music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald, in collaboration with Annie Dorsen. Directed by Kate Warner, currently at New Repertory Theatre,Charles Mosesian Theater, Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal St., Watertown. Performances are Fridays, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. with talkback on May 22; Wednesdays, Thursdays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday,May 21, at 3,8 p.m. Tickets, $28-$63; seniors, $7 off full price; student rush, $13. Call 617-923-8487 or visit www.newrep.org.