FEEL THE REAL - STEW CELEBRATES SHOTGUNS 30TH SEASON WITH THE RETURN OF ‘PASSING STRANGE’
THE BEST WAY TO DESCRIBE THIS “STRANGE” IS “I’m having a religious experience.”
Reviewed by Vince Mediaa
Shotgun Players opens their 30th season after two-years in the dark. The riveting Stew is back in the East Bay with his 2008 Tony winner PASSING STRANGE now on the Ashby Stage only through April 10th. This power house musical first premiered at the Berkeley Playhouse down the street from the Shotgun in 2007.
Director William Hodgson’s brilliant reboot of the original production intimately brings each of Stew's characters directly to your seat. "Watching Passing Strange changed me, changed what my art could be. I saw myself in this.” says director Hodgson who remembers when he first saw this musical as a teenager here in Berkeley. "I first saw Passing Strange fourteen years ago - This musical welcomed my young, nerdy, counterculture, Black self; it gave me permission. It was so Black, it even questioned what being Black meant”
Passing Strange isn’t your typical musical, or coming of age story. The arc examines the journey of life, inspiration and art. Race and community, mom and friends and the hard questions of a stubborn “youth” from South Central Los Angeles played by the dynamic Devin Cunningham. He learns life doesn’t offer any easy answers as his mother, played by the stunning Rolanda D. Bell who supports her son as she stands in the shadows of her “youth”. Stew narrates his story with song and monologue, played by the phenomenal Albert Hodge he sings “We Might Play All Night” to open the two hour journey.
Passing Strange is based on the life of Stew, the singer-songwriter-book writer who appeared in the show, at the Sundance workshop and Broadway run in 2004 He’s one of the show’s creators, along with co-songwriter Heidi Rodewald and original director, Annie Dorsen. The show follows young Stew as “the Youth”. He is a lost teenager in 1970s South Central LA trying to find out how he fits in. “We’re blacks passing as blacks,” his friend tells him. To his mother's delight his youth’s path of self-discovery takes him to a church choir. “I’m having a religious experience” says youth. Then after a dose or two of some THC he opens his path to Amsterdam then to Berlin. Youth discovers that running from racial identities, and finding meaning like most youngsters seek is not an easy “road that would not bend”. The teen takes us on a world road trip that goes beyond his moment in a punk rock band. Stew, the narrator of his own life says “He is trying to write a song, but the song is writing him.”
Director Hodgson keeps his production fast-moving and beautifully realized, with an improv feel that pulls the audience into the story. Stew often raises an eyebrow to cast member a satirical glance at the party around him, letting the sold out opening night crowd see the story through his eyes.
Hodge is an explosive performer with a marvelous voice and he is compelling and authentic as Youth. The brilliant cast that supports this impressive production includes Angel Adedokun and Chanel Tilghman as the women who alternate between offering Youth temptation and spicy virgin sex. Rolanda D Bell, brings sincerity and passion to the role of Youth’s patient and struggling mother.
Stew and Rodewald use gospel “Church Blues Revelation” to ragtime “The Black One” to punk rock. “Sole Brother” to heavy metal “May Day”. The songs are elastic, expanding to allow for a narrative, while others, like pop punk “We Just Had Sex,” digs deep into the narrative. Musical director Daniel Alley on keyboards brings many varied sounds to the Ashby stage. Vincent De Jesus is on drums, Bennett Hull on lead guitar, and Michael “Tiny” Lindsey on his busy bass. The band members are the heart and soul of this cast who interact with the actors.
Romello Huins’s set design uses the entire Ashby stage playing area. With platforms that reach the height of the three story set for the band and main entrances at the very top. Stephanie Johnson’s light design wraps around the set with a neon electric vibe that highlights the setting. Jeunee Simon’s intimate choreography moves the story forward. The dazzling numbers bring the audience into the soul of the story. Jasmine Milan Williams' costumes add an extra touch of texture to the more bizarre characters he discovers in Berlin. Mother is very well dressed for her church Sunday best and wonderful hats. Edwina, Desi, Sherry and Marina all played by the gifted Angle Adedokun and Chanel Tilghman.
Youth meets on his journey a wonderful group of characters including the exotic and very talented Shakur Tolliver who steals the show as a leather clad Venus, and Franklin the reverend's son. Tolliver is superb to watch as he empowers each of the men he plays. The energized Myles Brown plays Hugo and Chris, and in Germany he is the flamboyant Terry and proves his stellar vocals. The two women who fill out the female characters can carry the story on their own. Tilghman's flawless voice will steal the virginity right out of you. As Desi from Berlin she finally gets Youth in bed and he is in bliss. Tilghman is amazing and next to Cunningham they both lift this musical's electric energy.
Welcome home Passing Strange, this is a real exploration of a young man finding himself in a sinking and toxic world who discovers himself by finding his art and center. At times I was in tears but it also uplifted me. Opening night was a standing ovation tribute to this infectious cast and production team. Meet “Youth” and follow his path “I’m starting to feel the real” and you will as well.
Shotgun Players Presents
Stew (Book & Lyrics); Stew & Heidi Rodewald
(Music) Created in Collaboration with Annie Dorsey
Directed by William Hodgson
Music Director Daniel Alley, Choreographer Jeunee Simon
At the Ashby Stage Shotgun Players, 901 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley, CA.
Must close April 19, 2015
Tickets 7.00 to 40.00
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including an intermission.
Live streaming performances are available March 17 and 24, 2022. Tickets for both are available at www.shotgunplayers.org
Photos Credit: Benjamin Krantz