Passing Strange (2011)

Book and lyrics by Stew
Music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald
Setpember 22 - October 15, 2011
Washington University South Campus Theatre
Show Webpage
Production Photos

Narrator – Charles Glenn
Youth – Keith Parker
Mother – Talichia Noah
Sherry/Renata/Desi – Jeanitta Perkins
Edwina/Marianna/Sudabey – Andrea Purnell
Franklin/Joop/Mr. Venus – John Reed II
Terry/Christophe/Hugo – Cecil Washington Jr.

Director – Scott Miller
Costume Designer – Amy Kelly
Scenic Designer – Todd Schaefer
Lighting Designer – Kenneth Zinkl
Stage Manager – Trisha Bakula
House Manager – Ann Stinebaker
Box Office Manager – Vicki Herrmann
Lighting Technician – Trisha Bakula
Graphic Designer – Matt Reedy
Photographer – Jill Ritter Lindberg

Piano/Conductor – Justin Smolik
Guitar – D. Mike Bauer
Guitar – Aaron Doerr
Bass – Dave Hall
Percussion – Clancy Newell

Four Stars! “New Line Theater Founder and Artistic Director Scott Miller has chosen the ideal show to launch their new season, a production that totally matches the charter of his young, energetic and sometimes feverish theater. It’s called Passing Strange, and it is the familiar story of a young man in a search for himself and his future. . . . The energy and emotion of this production is potent. This cast displays enormous versatility and talent, and an obvious passion for the material. It is very involving for the audience. New Line knows what it’s doing and it shows. This is a terrific little show about a very personal journey that makes a night at New Line a very charged & involving experience.” – Harry Hamm, KMOX

“New Line’s season opener rocks. Literally. Never letting you forget you’re watching a play, Passing Strange challenges the preconceptions about what a musical is – a musical for people who don’t think they like musicals. It’s a high-octane, allegorical, semi-autobiographical account of a musician, Mark Stewart, who goes by the single name Stew and his journey of self-discovery. . . It’s a brilliant show with memorable performances and amazing songs. Actually, I’m buying the cast recording the second I post this entry. In short, go see it. I’m not kidding.” – Andrea Torrence, St. Louis Theatre Snob

Passing Strange is its own show, and an excellent one. . . It’s an exciting mélange of musical styles, with seven outstanding performers sizzling across the stage. . . It’s an interesting, fast-paced evening of musical theater with an exciting score, typical of the off-beat, difficult-to- characterize New Line productions.” – Joe Pollack, St. Louis Eats and Drinks 

“This production by New Line Theatre provides a passionate experience, emboldened by excellent performances and top notch direction, and driven by superb work from the musicians playing the tuneful score. . . Passing Strange is a must-see for all young artists, but it’s equally worthy of attention by the entire theatre-going crowd, since it’s incredibly captivating and involving, and filled with great music.” – Chris Gibson, BroadwayWorld 

“New Line Theatre has once again put a strong cast and a surprisingly good story on stage and makes us fall in love with musical theatre we may not be familiar with. In other words, Passing Strange is no Sound Of Music and the audience is better for it. . . You won’t find a more daring, unexpected or entertaining evening of theater anywhere else in St. Louis.” – Steve Allen, Java Journal 

“The musical Passing Strange takes the audience on a wild ride through sex, drugs and rock and roll. . . In director Scott Miller’s very capable hands, the show is poignant at times, angry at others, sometimes warm and very often hilarious.” – Christopher Reilly, The Patch 

“New Line rocks on in Passing Strange! Theater artists are almost useless in isolation. It takes at least a few people to put on the simplest and smallest of shows. That’s true even when a theater artist has a big personality and big hand in the work on stage. Stew is that kind of theater artist, and so is Scott Miller. Stew (aka Mark Stewart) wrote (and won a Tony for writing), co-composed (with Heidi Rodewald) and originally starred in Passing Strange, the exhilarating, hard-rocking musical that just opened here at New Line Theatre. Miller, who founded New Line in 1991 and remains its artistic director, has directed every show that it has staged, including this one. You can see their influences in this production, shimmering with Stew’s wit and shaking with Miller’s style. But it wouldn’t matter if not for the other artists who contributed their talents, notably the band and the ensemble.” – Judith Newmark, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Passing Strange is an intoxicating, invigorating and beguiling piece as whimsical in its writing as in its lively and spirited music. . . A critical smash [on Broadway] but lukewarm box-office draw, it closed after just 165 performances. Perhaps if the incomparable Charles Glenn had been belting out Stew’s free-wheeling tunes as the Narrator on the Great White Way, as he is in New Line Theatre’s sparkling presentation, it might still be playing there. Glenn has a masterful, multi-textured voice, an instrument he utilizes with utmost finesse under Scott Miller’s loving, carefully crafted direction. From the high-flying starting number, “We Might Play All Night,” to the bouncy, jaunty “Blues Revelation” to the beautiful ballad “Amsterdam” and the scintillating show tune, “The Black One,” Glenn takes control of this breezy romp and fills its two hours and 30 minutes with bravado and syncopated gusto.” – Mark Bretz, Ladue News 

“New Line is off to a flying start with the first local production of the musical Passing Strange . . . it has a marvelous score that comes to life with irresistible energy in the New Line production. Director Scott Miller is completely in tune with the show’s quest for artistic identity. . . There’s more in Passing Strange than I could take in, in one sitting. I hope this show won’t be a stranger to St. Louis theatres.” – Gerry Kowarsky, Two on the Aisle 

“In his program notes, director Scott Miller offers that he opted for a technically minimalist production to allow for the 'rich, rowdy music and lyrics.' Set by Todd Schaefer and costumes by Amy Kelly do their duty to stay out of the way. The little that’s present does a lot to gently accentuate the show and its cast – a swirling psychedelic blue brick road underlies the journey, actors clothed in gray basics become colorful characters as they toss around bright accessories. Most importantly, Miller’s minimalism accentuates the talent of his cast. With little to distract in the intimate theatre, the space is quickly filled with the finest wrist flick or arched brow. The actors also have all the room they need to play, and easily fill the stage as they acid trip in LA and riot in Berlin.” – Emily Piro, KDHX

Passing Strange, Stew and Heidi Rodewald’s hybrid musical/rock concert experience, challenges the notions of identity and theatrical conventions even as its hero confronts the stereotype of the rock & roll bohemian as a strictly white creation.” – The Riverfront Times

“Everyone around me was raving about the singing, the story, everything. . . Overall, there is a lot to like here.” – Rosiland Early, St. Louis Magazine

Passing Strange deserves a place beside other great autobiographical works of art, like Federico Fellini’s , Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz, and Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George. Like the others, Passing Strange traffics in surrealism and symbolism and metaphor, but unlike the others, this story is built not on images, but almost exclusively on music – rock, punk, acid rock, funk, gospel, R&B, Latin, and a little Kurt Weill and Burt Bacharach thrown in too. Here, the visuals are as minimalist as possible to make way for the rich, rowdy music and lyrics.

Constructed on the classic Hero Myth, the script calls the story’s hero just “Youth,” not “the Youth,” as if he’s standing in not only for the writer as a young man, but also for that whole period of life between childhood and adulthood, when choices are made and life’s puzzles are teased out. Late in the show the narrator says, “You know, it’s weird when you wake up that morning and realize that your entire adult life was based on a decision made by a teenager. A stoned teenager.” Like Pippin, the story of Passing Strange is episodic, exploring religion, politics, hedonism, and domesticity, but unlike Prince Pippin, this Youth finds what he’s looking for – or at the very least, he finds the road toward his destination.

Writer-composer Stew (née Mark Stewart) told NPR, “It’s what I like to call autobiographical fiction, in that every single thing that’s happening on the stage, I can point to something in my life, some kind of corollary, you know, that corresponds in some way. Did the things that happened in Amsterdam in our play happen to me? Some of them, but not all. It’s really just about the costs of being a young artist. It's a 46-year-old guy looking back at the things that he did and the values he had in his 20s, sort of when you're making that decision to really be an artist, you know?” Or as the Youth puts it, "I illuminate with fiction the darkness truth cannot explain.”

This is a memory play, like The Glass Menagerie or Long Day’s Journey Into Night, so these characters exist only in Stew’s memory, fictionalized both by the years and by intention. Some may see the show as a “black musical,” but race is only one of its topics. The African American Stew created the show with a white co-composer, white director, all white designers, and his all-white band (aside from him), The Negro Problem.

Stew tells us that the Youth’s journey is about finding The Real, but he doesn’t explicitly define it for us. He only tells us that “The Real is a construct.” Well, time is a construct too. Race is a construct. Theatre is a construct. Most importantly, our lives are a construct. We create them. We build them over time, moment by moment. We fashion them as we live them, very much as a product of our own ideology, personal history, and social circumstances. And when we realize that The Real is a construct for each one of us, that necessarily means that your Real will always be different from my Real, because each of us is coming from a different place and heading toward a different destination.

We each have our own Real to find, our own Tao. Passing Strange is Stew’s Real and tonight he shares it with us.

And it’s alright… cue music…

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