The Dueling Critics Pass Judgment on "Passing Strange"

April 29, 2011

KELLY: Jonathan, there could be two people less qualified to review this play than you and I, but it would be hard to find them. The show is presented as a concert event (by which I mean extremely over-amplified) and directed at 20-somethings, whereas we can both remember the Kennedy assassination. On the other hand, Passing Strange belongs to a very recognizable genre: the young-adult-search-for-authenticity-in-a-phony-world musical, of which the 1960s' Hair, the 1970s' Runaways and I'm Getting My Act Together . . ., and the 1990s' Rent are only the most obvious examples. As a genre piece, Passing Strange's book is quite competent--we'll talk about music separately--but even vigorous performances can't make it more than that. Agreed? 

JONATHAN: Speak for yourself, Kelly. I'M qualified to review EVERYTHING!!! Actually, I found Passing Strange far more palatable than I thought it would be and far less over-amped than, say, White Noise or the ear-drum-breaking Million Dollar Quartet. Your assessment of the show as standard-issue coming-of-age story is, indeed, correct as is your characterization of the book as "quite competent." Actually, I thought it was much more than that. Aside from the fact that it's too, too long (it should be about 100 minutes without an intermission), it has humor, wonderful satire of an entire generation of pop culture (both American and European) and a great deal of theatrical savvy. Unlike the other two shows I mentioned, the book also takes time to create believable and fleshed-out characters.

KELLY: Well, believable and fleshed-out characters of the male persuasion, anyway. The women are the same old stereotypes, mechanisms for the main character's discovery of sex, and then sexual love, and then maternal love. To adapt Dorothy Parker, they run the gamut of personalities from A to B.  Really, it was bad enough when women were marginalized in Hair. Couldn't we possibly have made some strides in the past 40 years?

And as for the music: it may have been quieter than the White Noise score, but it was also less worth listening to. I enjoyed a number of the tunes written by Stew and Heidi Rodewald--and, like you, appreciated the clever parodies of show tunes and gospel and so on--but as a lyricist Stew makes a terrific composer. Whenever he couldn't think of a second line he simply repeated the first line--5 or 6 times.  It's as though he put all his verbal creativity into the book and had nothing left for the lyrics.

JONATHAN: Kelly, the problem with you is .... No, wait, let me say that differently: Kelly, one of the many problems with you is that you can't appreciate a good Broadway musical when you encounter one, and that's what Passing Strange happens to be. It's NOT trying to be a big song-and-dance blockbuster, but it IS trying to be a middle-of-the-road show both musically and dramatically, and I believe it succeeds. I think your feminist perspective is misplaced this time 'round as there are much more interesting things to discuss (notice, I didn't say more important things), among them the fact that this is a Black show that isn't Black. I came to Passing Strange with a misconception of it as a hip-hop rap musical, which it absolutely is not. And the coming-of-age issues of the African-American hero have nothing at all to do with his being African-American, a fact the show even uses as a point of humor. The young hero ghettoizes himself only to establish his bona fides with his pseudo-radical artsy-fartsy German friends.

KELLY: And the problem with you is that you never pay attention to a word I say. No "good Broadway musical . . . middle-of-the-road show" would go up with lyrics consisting of first-line repetitions with no apparent effort at craftsmanship.

You're right, though, that the role of race in Passing Strange is a little puzzling. If the protagonist weren't black, there would be nothing fresh in the story at all.  But while the book alludes to the interesting tension between white people's fantasies of blackness and the actual lives of African-Americans, particularly middle-class ones, it doesn't really explore the subject. So we're left with a piece about a man who went looking for himself and found nothing. 

While Passing Strange was passing, I enjoyed it for the concert-with-sketch-comedy it was; but as soon as it was past, it evaporated as though it had never been. Something with a little more substance next time, please?

JONATHAN: Despite our differing opinions on the show as a dramatico-musical work, I believe we agree on the quality of the performers, whom we haven't mentioned before. The two leads, JC Brooks as the Narrator and Steven Perkins as the nameless Youth, are versatile, dynamic and appealing and do a first-rate job of selling the material (whether or not you like the material). The supporting ensemble and the Uptown Sound (the band) are in the groove, honed to perfection and given the right stage chops by director Lili-Anne Brown. Nonetheless, I will add that the marketers of Passing Strange are making a mistake to package it as if it were a rock concert rather than musical theater. Also: PLEASE put some info in the program about THE AUTHORS OF THE SHOW, Stew and Heidi Rodewald. They deserve just a tetch of credit, I think. Passing Strange is set to run through May 29.