Passing Strange should be viewed less for the specific details of its storyline and more for what it means as a whole, symbolically.
The musical sets you up with what initially seems like a stereotype (a single black American mother trying to raise her rebellious son), then snatches it away, as if to say, “No, no, it’s not that kind of show.”
And it’s really not – Passing Strange is a Tony Award-winning indie-rock musical that feels like a series of firsts.
The brainchild of Stew (American singer-songwriter Mark Stewart), Passing Strange’s score is a unique blend of a variety of genres from punk to gospel, in a bid to stray away from the typical conventions of musical theatre, while also reflecting the protagonist’s experimental journey.
In a nod to Stew’s own life, the Narrator of the show (played by Beau Dixon in the Toronto production, but originally played by Stew when the show first opened on Broadway in 2008), walks us through the life of the protagonist, Youth (Jahlen Barnes) – who we learn is a younger version of himself.
Determined to break out on his own, away from his middle-class lifestyle in 1970s L.A. and the expectations of his Mother (Divine Brown), Youth takes off to Europe to start a music career, in pursuit of what he believes is “real.”
The title of the show hearkens back to a scene from Shakespeare’s Othello, and refers to the struggle Youth faces in finding his identity – often trying to pass for someone he’s not.
While history has seen African Americans struggle to “pass as white,” this musical flips that concept on its head as we see the Youth’s internal battle, thinking he's not black enough. He equates black with hardship, then struggles with the fact that he has never actually experienced that hardship. His preconceived notion about what it means to be black hinders his ability to define and, more importantly, accept himself.
The musical focus of the show does overshadow the plot at times, which seems to be missing some meat in terms of text. It becomes apparent that the climactic point of realization for the Youth is not only foreseeable, but lacks the emotional impact it could have had, had it been given more script.
That being said, Acting Up Stage and Obsidian theatre companies have effectively extracted the heart of the show and made it their own, speeding up the tempo of many of the tunes, which works well in keeping up with the general pace of the musical – and the pace of its protagonist, who leaps around from place to place.
Up-and-coming performer Jahlen Barnes and the energetic, versatile Divine Brown make for an attention-grabbing mother-son pair, while the rest of the ensemble (David Lopez, Sabryn Rock, Peter Fernandes and Vanessa Sears) take us for a spin, not only with their vocal chops, but through the way they seamlessly transform from African American to Dutch to German, and take us right there with them every time.
Dixon delivers an impactful performance as the wise narrator, who has lived this life before. He comes in with the punchline at the end, reminding us that our “entire adult life is based on a decision made by a teenager.”
And that is precisely the foundation on which the show is built – it’s about how the choices you made in your past make you who you are today – for better or for worse.
Directed by Philip Akin, the Canadian premiere of Passing Strange continues at The Opera House until Feb. 5. For more information, visit http://www.obsidiantheatre.com/season/passing-strange/.