New Rep has a big heart. They’re right on the border with Brighton although they’re actually situated in Watertown. The high school in Watertown has one miraculous arts program but the Boston School System doesn’t have a lot of arts – so New Rep has started a TELL YOUR STORY program with Brighton High students. They’ll create their own version of the PASSING STRANGE musical currently running on New Rep’s main stage (through May 22nd). Then New Rep will hold public performances of their results. Best of all, the talented actors of PASSING STRANGE will hold workshops with the students.
The best thing about New Rep’s PASSING STRANGE are the performers who recreate L.A. musician Stew’s semi-autobiographical, Tony Award winning show. Not your typical musical, PASSING STRANGE follows Stew’s search around the world for the “REAL.” Although his genre is rock and roll, it’s definitely not your grandfather’s rock. (It’s a little too “soft” rock for me, sorry to say.)
In director Kate Warner’s smart version, Stew is played by Cliff Odle, who looks for all the world like a ‘40s jazz man. (All he needs is a goatee and a beret.) Odle is the hipster narrator who pushes the story along, from mother’s long apron strings to a strung out layover in Amsterdam, to a mind bending sojourn in Berlin, and home again.
Stew’s humor is what carries the show and although many of the individual interludes are enjoyably drawn (especially the crazy Germans), they don’t add up to a heck of a lot. I’d be hard pressed to explain what Stew’s epiphany is. I think there’s a bit of THE WIZARD OF OZ to it. You know, learning there’s no place like home…or no “REAL” place like home…but the message about “life being a mistake that only art can correct” was lost on me. What I liked were Stew’s rhymes. My favorite song was Take My Keys, Please from the Amsterdam section…which happily inspires the Youth to sing “[Amsterdam] Looks like Sodom from top to bottom.”
What I loved were the wacky characters the “Youth” meets on his travels. (Cheo Bourne gives a winning performance as the adventurous, innocent, “Youth”ful Stew.) Maurice Parent has a field day as the outrageous choir director in L.A., then, among other roles, the wild, punked up, Berlin cabaret performance artist. Eve Kagan, too, makes the most of her German pseudo-revolutionary poet role. Kami Rushell Smith and D’Lon Grant are hilarious in multiple personalities but it’s Cheryl D. Singleton as Mother who grounds the piece: Singleton moves effortlessly from hovering and gently teasing to touching and heartbreaking.
Music director Todd C. Gordon and the on stage band do work Stew and Heidi Rodenwald’s music. It just didn’t gel for me. Hey, what do I know? I’m just an ancient rock n’ roller, hanging on to the Stones and Jimi Hendrix. See it for yourself. Maybe you can discover the “REAL” deal.