Thursday, June 7, 2007

Passing Strange - June 6, 2007

The coming of age story is not by any means a new plot line, but it can be enjoyable and moving when it's well done - or when there is an actual story to be told. This usually means we care about the protagonist. Passing Strange is the coming of age story of a whiny kid who finds his way to Europe while attempting to learn the ropes of the craft of songwriting. And to smoke hash. Gotta say: I could not care less.

There's no dramatic push to drive him away from his fairly comfortable, middle class home in Los Angeles where he lives with his mother. From what we are shown the main reason for his rebellion is that his mother wants him to attend church. He feels his spiritual path lies elsewhere but nonetheless joins the church choir (because he falls for a girl in the choir). So much for spirituality as his driving force. He ends up leaving home to roam Amsterdam and Berlin to find 'the real' - I'm hazy on what this actually means. Perhaps it was defined in one of the many endless songs which, while admittedly had a great beat, my toe was tapping, were unintelligible. If the lyrics were moving or meaningful in any way, neither I nor the people attending with me could hear them.

The set was well designed by David Korins whose work is always clever and fresh. While at first the set appears to be a whole lotta "not much", it is deceptive. We find musicians are set on descending platforms that rise and fall depending on the action and the back wall is revealed to be a full 'light wall' that becomes a city of neon and is quite impressive. I wish I could say the production deserved such stylish treatment.

This is a show that needs a hefty edit job. There are smart bits of dialogue, there might even be a story here, but as one of the oft repeated lyrics of one of the many (unlisted) songs says: "Too bad it takes so long". It does indeed take far too long to go absolutely nowhere.

There are fine performers working hard here, but truthfully there was only one standout, Colman Domingo who plays multiple roles (Mr. Franklin, Joop, and Mr. Venus) is the only - and I mean only - character who actually makes any sort of connection to the audience. If I had to choose one fatal flaw in this show that would be it -- the absolute lack of connection to the audience. In fact the bulk of the show seems played purely for the cast and musicians themselves, taking the concept of the fourth wall to a place more like a biosphere. On more than one occasion cast members were cracking each other up like Harvey Korman and Tim Conway on a bad episode of the old Carol Burnett show. It was barely funny in the 1970s - it's really not funny here. Really. I expect a little more professionalism at the Public.

The welcome resurgence of rock in Broadway and Off-Broadway musicals is not well served here. Wait for something better to come along. Something with an actual story.

The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
New York, NY 10003
Tickets: 212-967-7555
running time: 2 hours 30 minutes with one intermission
Closes July 1

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