Saturday, April 30, 2011

Passing Strange

PASSING STRANGE showcases BW students at their best!

Baldwin Wallace College is noted for having one of the country’s premiere musical theatre programs. No more proof is needed than seeing PASSING STRANGE, now on stage for a short run in the 14th Street Theatre. This is a perfect choice to showcase these talented stars in the making. The characters are their age, the parts require unabashed showmanship, and the music is of their era.

Cudos to Victoria Bussert, the inspiration behind the college’s program and Gina Vernaci, the dynamo Playhouse Square’s Vice President for Theatricals, for conceiving the collaboration between the two institutions, which is now in its fourth year. Past shows have included BROOKLYN THE MUSICAL, [TITLE OF SHOW], and CHESS: THE LONDON VERSION. All were quirky scripts that gave the students a chance to spread their wings and perform in a professional venue. They are also the type of shows that Bussert does best…small creative wonders.

PASSING STRANGE is a musical with lyrics and book by Stew and music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald. It examines part of the life of a black musician (the Youth), who finds himself, in the late 1970s, as a teenager, rebelling against his middle class upbringing, including rejection of the church, his mother’s teachings, and trying to pass as something he is not, as he traverses through Amsterdam and Berlin. These experiences open him to drugs, sex and rock and roll, while forcing him into introspection.

The title of the play not only highlights Youth’s passing from teenager into early manhood, but harkens to the term “passing” as used in Black English to indicate “passing as white, being someone you are not, as well as the passage of time.”

The play’s history is quite different than the usual path that shows take. Stew, a popular New York club performer, was commissioned by The Public Theatre of New York to develop a story of a young bohemian who charts a course for his life. After tryouts in California and Off-Broadway, the show opened on Broadway in 2008, ran 165 performances and was made into a film directed by Spike Lee. The original production starred Stew, himself, as the narrator, who weaves the tale together.

Ironically, as the show was in local rehearsal, Stew (Mark Stewart) and his band, The Negro Problem, were performing at the Cleveland Play House’s Fusion Festival. Stew and the band hung out with the BW cast and sat in on rehearsals. The experience, as explained by the students in the opening night after show talkback, was “mind opening.” They not only gained an understanding of the story, which is a biodrama based on Stew’s life, but found the where-with-all to transform the message not into a black experience, but into a universal one.

This opportunity to come in contact with professionals is just another aspect of what makes the BW-PHSquare collaboration so valuable.

The production is double cast. I saw the “Stew Cast” which featured Rod Lawrence as the Youth and Alex Syiek portraying three roles.

Lawrence is an exceptional talent. He has a fine voice, moves with ease and has a stage presence which is often hypnotic. His face shows great introspection, he feels and taps into the emotions of the character he portrays. Tears rolled down his face during a striking eulogy near the play’s ending.

Syiek transfers nicely into his various roles…playing swishy, macho and straight with conviction. Adrianna Cleveland (Mother) has a strong singing voice and a nice stage presence. Ciara Renée compels when she is on stage. She sings well, is beautiful, and develops clear characterizations. Jessica Dyer, and Jude McCormick also are excellent in various roles. Sara Budnik, as the band’s vocalist, displays a nice singing voice. Jay Ellis (Narrator) has a strong singing voice and interprets lines well. Unfortunately, he sometimes shouts rather than developing power with nuance.

Ryan Fielding Garret, the show’s musical director, and his band (Kevin Johnson, Rob Chase and Dylan Hayden), are excellent. They fade under spoken lines and allow the singers’ words to be heard, while developing the rock, spiritual and blues score.

Not only do the BW students get a chance to have a professional experience, but the Arts Management’s majors get to work with the Playhouse Square staff in marketing, education and operations. This is another advantage of the collaboration.

Capsule judgement: Unfortunately, the wonderful PASSING STRANGE is only onstage through May 1. It’s a shame. This could have been a long running show that would have built a cult audience. Bravo to the outstanding cast and let’s hope that the BW-PHSq collaboration continues!