IN Review: Don’t Pass on Passing Strange at City Theater Company
I never do this but before you read anything about this show, I implore readers to just trust me and buy their tickets for City Theater Company’s production of Passing Strange now. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Here’s the link: www.city-theater.org.
Got them? Good. Here is the amazing ride you’re in for:
Passing Strange is a semi-autobiographical metaphysical coming-of-age piece based on the life of the show’s playwright and lyricist, Stew. Told in a third-person narrative, the story follows a young man (Youth) from a middle-class religious upbringing on a journey that takes him from L.A. to both Amsterdam and Berlin in search of his artistic and personal identity or “the real,” as he calls it. Through this voyage, he finds that artistic voice but waivers a bit on the personal and emotional side along the way.
Stew originally created and workshopped Passing Strange at the Sundance Theatre Lab in Utah in 2004 along with his musical partner, Heidi Rodewald. The original production was performed at Berkeley Rep before transferring to New York City’s Public Theater in 2007. The Broadway production opened in February 2008 at the Belasco Theatre and won a 2008 Tony Award for “Best Book of a Musical.” All told, Passing Strange garnered seven Tony nominations, including “Best Musical,” and won two Obie Awards, a New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, and a Drama Desk Award.
It’s been a while since City Theater has launched a production in The Black Box at Opera Delaware Studios on S. Poplar Street; but, this piece is a perfect fit for the space. Its intimacy immerses the audience into the world, with a story unfolding before us in a truly emotional and tangible way that a larger space couldn’t offer.
The show opens with an amazing 5-piece band led by the incomparable Joe Trainor. His expert music direction of the show made for a stellar evening of music. The rock/punk score had everyone bobbing their heads and tapping their toes all night. Once this show starts, it drives – very fast – leaving the audience little time to applaud between numbers but making those moments when we can cheer that much more deserved.
In the opening notes of the evening, we first hear the smooth voice of CTC veteran, Chris Banker (Pub Plays, Afterbirth of a Nation, Hair). Chris’s character of the Narrator guides the audience along this journey through a perfect mix of spoken word and song. His performance was perfectly stoic and retrospective as he easily holds the spotlight over the course of the 2 hour and 15-minute evening.
The hero of the story is played by Dominic Santos who delivers a riveting tour de force performance as “Youth.” Through this role, Santos is able to perfectly showcase his wide range of talents. I’ve had the pleasure of watching Dominic on stage for many years and am thrilled to see him thrive through this role. Santos delivers in every single moment he is on stage from start to finish–which is the majority of the show. I think I only remember him leaving the stage for intermission and as part of the final scene.
A versatile and electrifying four-person ensemble round out the production. Each member has a moment to shine throughout the evening – from Meredith Bell’s powerful and heart-wrenching portrayal of “Mother,” to Philip Anthony Wilson’s wild turn as a German anti-establishment performance artist–these four actors bring energy, passion, and vigor each time the step on stage.
Choreography by Ashley SK Davis perfectly emphasizes the music and story. Her visceral movements combined with the exhilarating music, made me want to jump on the stage with the cast and rock out.
Cara Tortorice’s costumes brilliantly allow each ensemble performer to morph into their various characters seamlessly from song to song and scene to scene. Her implementation of a simple black base layer with character-specific pieces on top help the audience understand and connect with each role. I really enjoyed how Tortorice strategically echoes the costumes of the Narrator and Youth – each wearing the same shoes and maroon shirt but with subtle differences in style and cut.
Lighting Design by Olivia Weiss perfectly enhances each mood and moment throughout the show. Audiences should be mindful that since the production is in the Black Box, they may find themselves “in the spotlight” a few times throughout depending on where they sit.
City Theater’s Company production of Passing Strange plays at Opera Delaware’s Black Box through December 21, 2019. If you didn’t follow my instructions at the beginning of this review to grab your tickets, I wholeheartedly encourage everyone to do so now and witness this outstanding production before it closes–there are only four performances left. Tickets are available at www.city-theater.org.