Passing Strange Makes for an Entertaining Journey Toward Adulthood

A strange and wonderful journey indeed.
A strange and wonderful journey indeed. Photo by Pin Lim

Pilgrims are on the march this month in Houston.

Downtown at the Alley Theatre, young Gordon hip-hops into adulthood in the world premiere of NSangou Njikam's buoyant Syncing Ink, while uptown at Obsidian Theater, The Youth (an ardent and innocent David Allen III) bounds into manhood in Obsidian's effervescent production of Stew and Heidi Rodewald's Tony-winning Passing Strange (2008), presented in association with Standing Room Only Productions. Ink is full of dis and twisting patter not heard since W.S. Gilbert flounced through Sir Arthur Sullivan's Victorian music hall; Passing is Broadway filtered through rock's red angst. Both heroes want to find themselves, and their journey toward self-fulfillment is the through-line. Gordon finds enlightenment through rhyme; Youth finds himself by experiencing life, although, at the end, his journey has only begun.

Although staged with perfect assurance by Obsidian and SRO, Passing may be more concept album than show, even though the show it puts on is mighty entertaining, thanks to the high-life ensemble that knocks every number over the wall.

Overseen by an omniscient Narrator (a majestic, fleet-singing Rodrick Randall) who leads us through the story, Youth follows the typical path of disenchanted, alienated young man. But with a twist. He's black and wants to be a songwriter, but in this case he's middle-class, lives in a nice house with a devoted mom (an absolutely sparkling RaMina Mirmortazavi), and is as far away from “the struggle” as a guy from 1976 Los Angeles's south central can be. Where does he fit in? He desperately wants to be “real,” but everything to him reads phony. Where shall he turn?

All the usual suspects emerge during his quest: religion, revolt against the Man, sex, drugs, and rock and roll, naturally. Bored by his mom's Baptist church and deep faith, he views it all as fashion show. “Jesus'll make it back here before I do,” he mocks her with sass. He's now a Buddhist, meditating in his room, but peace won't come, another dead end. Coerced into the church choir, led by a pot-smoking flamboyant Franklin, the pastor's son (a delightfully debauched R. Cantrell Williams), who urges impressionable Youth Europe. He's tempted to stay after entreaties from Edwina (a backyard bombshell Estee Burks), but she wants a picket fence and “sculptures from African tribes we know nothin' about,” one of numerous comic barbs peppered throughout this prickly musical. She also wants him to “blacken up a bit...but not that you become unhireable.”

He's too young and raw for domesticity, so he takes Franklin's advice to find himself on distant shores, where in Franklin's soignée description, he can live like La Baker walking a panther down the boulevard.

Amsterdam is free love, pot and a new family of hippies. (Orlanders Jones makes a wacky, self-involved preener.) But after awhile this paradise palls, even with the love of Marianne (Burks again, even more lovely). In the musical's most fragrant ballad, “Keys,” their burgeoning affair takes flight. But Youth feels confined, unsatisfied. So it's off to Berlin, hotbed of revolution, anarchy, the Wall.

His songwriting continues, and he persuades his new rebel friends that he's been a victim of oppression back home. He can be one of them twice over. Look how black he can be. The show's best number, “The Black One,” is a sublimely wicked parody of Kander & Ebb via “Cabaret.” Eric Dano's delicious choreographic tribute to Bob Fosse's distinctive style of glitz and sleaze uses bowler hats, slinky moves and plenty of jazz hands. This is satire with teeth, mocking both classic Broadway and the Youth's starry-eyed faux black persona. It stops the show. The Youth is in love with Desi, a spitfire German black panther (a seductive JaMés Phillips). When all his buddies desert him for the bourgeois concept of Christmas with their own families, and after Desi uncovers his ruse of ghetto warrior, he's as lost as he ever was. Home calls him back.

What he finds there will be more pain, but the revelation matures him like nothing else has. He discovers “the real” within himself, within his art. In the final song, he dons the Narrator's orange tie and black coat and pants. They are the same person.

Sharply directed by Vance Johnson, assisted by the roiling musical direction from Faith Fossett (adding her voice to the ensemble, with band members James Hyatt, Sean Ramos and Eric Williams), Passing Strange may not say anything new, but the way it's told – by that exciting, exemplary cast, all new faces to me; and by that evocative score and those nearly flawless lyrics – just goes to prove that it's not the journey, it's the people one meets along the way. What pilgrims they are over at Obsidian Theater and SRO.

Passing Strange continues at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays through March 4 at Obsidian Theater, 3522 White Oak Boulevard. For information, call 832-889-7837 or visit $28-$38.

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover