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Street Theatre's 'Passing Strange', a rock musical journey of discovery

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Passing Strange, Street Theatre Company, Nashville

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Now on stage at Street Theatre Company through June 27, 'Passing Strange' is the unlike any other self-discovery journey musical around. While it's a seemingly familiar tale of a young man setting out to take on the world as his hones his craft as a rock musician who travels from a comfy life in late-1970s Los Angeles to the punk-rocking 80s of Amsterdam and Berlin's avant-garde performance art scene, 'Passing Strange' tackles sexuality, racial stereotypes and love, and in doing so, features everything from church music to thrasher punk along the way.

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Written and first performed by L.A.-based rock musician Stew (born Mark Stewart), 'Passing Strange' is another little gem of a show that Street Theatre Company has a reputation for bringing to Nashville's theatre-loving audience. Having only graced the Broadway stage for five months back in 2008, 'Passing Strange' proved it's appeal by snagging seven Tony nods and by taking home the coveted statuette for 'Best Book of a Musical'. A broader audience may be familiar with the story courtesy of a subsequent Spike Lee filmed version from 2009. Following STC's invite-only preview performance, Cathy Street, Artistic Director for STC informed me that 'Passing Strange' is about to be revived with a coming run in Chicago later this year, further evidence Street is always at the forefront of what's next in theatre.

Making a bold casting choice, Director Jon Royal (STC's 'Colored Museum', 'Hairspray' and 'Once On This Island') cast funk rock band lead singer, A. J. Eason in the role of the Narrator, who happens to be the grown-up version of the story's primary character. Bold because although Eason is no stranger to performing onstage with his band A. J. and the Jiggawatts (they just played Bonnaroo), 'Passing Strange' marks his musical theatre stage debut. Eason, whose delivery is somewhere between lounge act and understated soulful vocalist turns in a valiant first-time performance that I'm confident will only improve throughout the run.

Interestingly also making his STC debut is Elvie Williams in the lead role of 'Youth', the younger version of Eason's Narrator. Williams is a joy to watch, from start to finish. He perfectly embodies a young man who, in spite of actually coming from a loving single-parent home in a not-so-bad part of L.A., once on his journey, fabricates a bit more struggle as his own backstory. Williams' vocal skills are showcased throughout, but truly take center stage during Act 1's 'Keys' and Act 2's 'Youth's Unfinished Song'.

As always, STC's supporting cast is nothing less than superb. Among them, three of my longtime 'theatre crushes', Tamiko Robinson, Lauren Jones and LaToya Gardner. All three ladies previously worked with director Royal in STC's 'Colored Museum'.

Robinson, as Mother, runs the gamut from hilarious to over-bearing and right round to unconditionally loving. Her comedic highlight comes right outta the gate when she's trying to wake her son for Sunday service by taking on a stereotypical ebonics-filled tone, then quickly and obviously switching to her more refined, natural speaking voice. Robinson's musical highlights come courtesy of the appropriately titled 'Mom Song' and one of the show's final numbers, 'Cue Music (Is It Alright?)

Throughout the show, Jones and Gardner, along with the remaining cast: Patrick James and DeVon Buchanan, take on a number of roles. All bringing the perfect blend of humor, spirit and life to each character they portray. In a nice wink to the show's titular source, among Jones' roles is Desi (as in Othello's Desdemona). For Gardner, Marianna, a free-thinking sexually expressive bohemian girl who offers our Youth, her heart, home and everything else, at least for a while, 'Keys', 'We Just Had Sex' and 'Paradise' are all stand-out performances.

As for the remaining men in 'Passing Strange', of James' roles, Mr. Franklin, a not-so-closeted church choir director with a penchant for pot is played with just enough flame to be funny, yet not totally offensive. As Mr. Venus, ann out-there performance artist whom Youth meets in Berlin during Act 2, James presents the all-too-familiar 'artist' we've all seen, but rarely understand. Turning the tables on the phrase, 'you can't judge a book by it's cover', Mr. Venus gets a little more introspective with the telling 'What's Inside is Just a Lie'.

Buchanan not only takes on multiple roles onstage, he also choreographed the extremely provocative dance sequences throughout the show. Like so many of his fellow cast mates, Buchanan shows true versatility playing everything from Reverend Jones and a not-so-rhythmic teenage drummer named Terry to a sex worker in Amsterdam and later, a member of the avant-garde Berlin set. The hymn-like 'Church Blues Revelation' as performed by Buchanan's Reverend Jones is yet another of the show's musical highs.

Speaking of highs, you can't have a show that features Amsterdam without delving into the legal drug culture. Fittingly, the most entertaining sequence in the entirety of 'Passing Strange' is the all-in 'Amsterdam'.

As always, STC Musical Director Rollie Mains heads a fantastic house band. Thanks to the show's rock venue staging, Mains (on keyboards), Luke Easterling (bass), John Murphy (guitar) and JJ Street (drums) are featured onstage throughout the show, as opposed to being backstage as they frequently are during most musical presented at STC. Each member of the house band is a truly skilled musician, equally at home during the show's more spiritual number as they are the more spirited solid rockers that dominate the piece.

Street not only keeps the beat as drummer, he also serves as set and sound designer for the show. Along with lighting designer Kelly Landry and costumer Jeri Meador, the creative team behind the scenes has pulled together a visual and audible cohesive design concept that, from first look perfectly conveys the vitality and life of a live rock show.

'Passing Strange' is as quirky as its title, and that's a great thing. 'Passing Strange' at once makes fun of, holds a thought-provoking mirror to, and celebrates music, perceptions of sex, class, status and art; all the while rocking out with a carefree but thoughtful vibe. Street Theatre's presentation of 'Passing Strange' continues with performances Friday thru Sunday, June 20-22 and a final performance Friday, June 27. Tickets are $20 for Adults, $18 for Students. Sunday performances offer a special pay-what-you-can ticket pricing on remaining tickets available half-an-hour before curtain. For more information or to purchase tickets, CLICK HERE.

Next up on the stage at Street Theatre Company is 'Behind the Mirror: A Tale of Show White and Rose Red, presented by STC's ClassAct youth company with shows July 11-26. CLICK HERE for more information or to purchase tickets.

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