REVIEW: PASSING STRANGE at The Aurora Fox
by Mona Lott
Even though the rock musical, Passing Strange, was a Seven-time Tony nominee and garnered several prestigious awards including Outstanding Musical from the Drama Desk Awards, it was a financial failure on Broadway winning only one Tony for Best Book and losing Best Musical to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights.
It seems that the critical success of the show has done it a disservice in which it’s still rather unknown to much of the country outside of The Big Apple. The audience at The Aurora Fox production of Passing Strange appeared to be approaching the show with the excitement of discovering something newer than Oklahoma, Annie or A Chorus Line and the performance did not fail in turning that curious energy into a palatable universal heartbeat.
Upon entering the theater, one is instantly assaulted with the bright neon lights framing Brandon Case’s Scenic Design. Illuminating the shape of two giant shoe boxes juxtaposed with an endless variety of lighting options and ghostly reflections that move and change with the neon’s meandering. It metaphorically allows this cast to pull old pictures out of storage and look into the memories being reflected back to them. Brett Maughans lighting design works so well with the scenic design that It’s almost impossible to see where one begins and another one ends.
Utilizing a set so stimulating to look at becomes the provocation of the director, in this case, Nick Sugar. Sugar, who also choreographed, turns The Aurora Fox Stage into a playground and competently sends his cast out to test its potential for amusement.
The cast is led by Trent Armand Kendall as the narrator who tells us his name is Stew. In reality, Stew is an underground songwriter and musician with a cult following who wrote the book to Passing Strange and with Heidi Rodewald, the music. The part of the narrator was played by Stew in the original production and it becomes evident that the journey of our young protagonist is the story of Stew in an autobiographical look at his life. It’s a Pipin-esque sort of journey with the Leading Player being replaced by Kendall’s depiction of Stew. Kendall brings a cool, hip vibe to the character and after a somewhat bombastic approach in the beginning settles into the role with a modern sophistication and style that takes command of the stage.
Joseph Lamar is the central character referred to only as Youth in a masterful performance that is charming and compelling. His impudence and snappy retorts reveal a young man struggling to break free of the homestead he was raised in and discover his own voice in the world. Lamar’s voice is smooth, youthful and gratifyingly easy to listen to.
As Youth and his guitar go searching through Europe for, “the real'” Youth discovers love, drugs, sex and betrayal. Stew later tells us that Youth is “looking for something in life that can only be found in art.” His travels are augmented by the remaining cast who slip in and out of the darkness within the neon framed boxes channeling the eclectic mix of characters in Youth’s travels.
Most notable is Sheryl McCallum as Youth’s mother. Her performance is so delightful and enchanting that every time she sashays out of the darkness and walks into the footlights of the stage one is left breathlessly waiting for whatever magic she is about to produce. A voice obviously capable of big sound is expertly controlled and her vocals on Mom Song are excellent.
The journey of self-discovery takes Youth to Amsterdam and Berlin with Amsterdam revealing a rather tired old cliché of sex, drugs and rock and roll. More a fault of the script than of this talented ensemble, the first act seems to dwindle from what was a thoroughly thrilling beginning to a rather tedious and flat conclusion. No matter, because the musical picks up with the second act having a second wind and the cast fusing into an ensemble of joyful expression.
Kendall comes downstage towards the end of the voyage and breaks the fourth wall to speak directly to us in one of the most genuine moments of the show. It is from this moment on that Stew seems to meet Youth in a collaborative discovery of “the real.” Youth in a final effort of denial and rebellion shouts that life is a mistake that art has to correct, even though he is faced full on with what is real in that moment.
The reemergence of Mother and her subsequent fade into the blackness of the neon box leaves an absence in our hearts and wraps the show up in a melancholy reprise of “it’s all right.”
Overall the music in Passing Strange is joyful and exuberant, the story universal in its appeal and the production at The Aurora Fox exceptional in its production. Do yourself a favor and don’t miss this production, and if you can, take your mother.
Be drawn into the story and the music of PASSING STRANGE at the Aurora Fox Arts Center April 13th through May 13th. For tickets or more information, contact the box office by calling 303-739-1970 or online at www.aurorafoxartscenter.org. The Aurora Fox Arts Center is located at 9900 East Colfax Ave in Aurora, CO.
PHOTO CREDIT: Christine Fisk