“Why are normal everyday things, like, sheer agony for you?” asks a mother of her son, in the musical “Passing Strange.”
“Because normal everyday things are phony,” responds the son.
And so the son, like countless theatrical and literary heroes before him, goes in search of “the real,” gains wisdom from his experiences and, ultimately, learns that those “normal everyday things” don’t have to be so agonizing.
That may be the rather familiar outline of “Passing Strange,” which is currently being presented by the Vanguard Theater Company in Montclair. But the presentation is one-of-kind. Stew, the one-named singer-songwriter who wrote the musical’s book and lyrics and collaborated with Heidi Rodewald on the music — and who co-starred in the 2008 Broadway production, for which he won the Tony for Best Book for a Musical — fills the autobiographical “Passing Strange” with rock music, and has said he was trying to re-create the energy and wildness of a rock concert in a theatrical setting.
This production — very funny at times, deeply moving at others — lives up to his vision.
Vanguard’s founding artistic director Janeece Freeman Clark directs, and puts the four-piece band (pianist Mitch Samu, guitarist Ryan Liatsis, bassist Jasmine Bloch-Krempels and drummer Amanda Lee Morrill) on an elevated stage behind the actors. With them for most of the show is Dwayne Clark, who is identified in the program as “Narrator” and, indeed, provides a running commentary on the action, singing and playing guitar at times and just talking at others. He’s all-knowing and all-seeing, but also represents an older version of the show’s main character, identified as Youth (Jason Tyler Smith).
The Narrator may be more mature than Youth, but there is nothing staid about him. On the rare occasions when Clark leaves the band area to interact with the play’s characters, or venture up into the audience, he does so with an electrifying, show-stealing force.
The story starts with Youth in his Los Angeles home, sparring with his mother (Brandi Chavonne Massey), who wants him to go to church more and spend less time with pursuits like Zen Buddhism. Youth reluctantly goes, and is practically born again by the ecstatic emotion he discovers there.
He joins the church choir, but his journey is far from over. He tries out drugs and punk-rock and, later, travels to Amsterdam (where his life is changed by the guiltless hedonism he embraces) and Berlin (where his life is changed, yet again, by the serious-as-death, revolution-minded artists and activists he befriends).
He stays in touch with his mother by phone. She is supportive but also disturbed by the distance — both physical and emotional — that has developed between them.
Lawrence Dandridge, J’royce Jata, Amanda Ross Gross and A’ja Desormeau all play multiple parts: The friends, bandmates and love interests Youth encounters during his journey. They’re uniformly fine in their roles, with Dandridge’s turn as an insanely intense German performance artist — whose act centers around a line, “What’s inside is just a lie,” that is repeated over and over, as if it is a mantra — really standing out.
Meanwhile, Youth, who grew up in a comfortable middle-class home, finds it useful to pretend he came from the ghetto, and was oppressed. The show’s most playful song, “The Black One” (which sounds like a jaunty, old-fashioned show tune), makes fun of this, with lines like, “An artist creates surfaces, and then comes the fee/He’s doing the same thing … except I call the surface me.”
The four-piece band helps make this song fun and bouncy, just like it effortlessly pulls off everything else the the score demands, from punk to gospel.
This may all sound a bit scattered: It’s part of Stew’s strategy, I think, to throw a lot of wildly contradictory stuff at you, for the sheer excitement of doing that, and to reflect the extremes of his own life. But everything comes together nicely in the meaningful, heartfelt ending.
“Passing Strange” runs at the Vanguard Theater in Montclair through March 5. Visit vanguardtheatercompany.org.
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