August 12, 2010 at 1:47 pm EST | by Patrick Folliard
‘Passing Strange’ a winning, relevant musical

His performance in ‘Passing Strange’ marks a true milestone in Aaron Reeder’s young career. (Photo courtesy of Studio 2ndStage)

While sharing a joint with his closeted church choir director, “Passing Strange’s” young African-American protagonist (simply called Youth) realizes for the first time that there is a world outside of the stultifying, middle class Los Angeles that he unhappily calls home.

Franklin, the choir director, explains to his searching young friend that the two of them are black folks passing for black folks — both are better suited for Europe’s more bohemian quarters where ex-pats like James Baldwin and Josephine Baker were able to be themselves. And even though Franklin will forever remain tethered to home by his minister father’s purse strings and never break away, Youth is ready to grab his guitar and go.

The details of young artists’ stories may vary in detail, but the essentials of their lesson-learning journeys aren’t all that different. In this Tony Award-winning autobiographical rock musical by Stew (like the late Liberace, the singer/songwriter goes by one name) and Heidi Rodewald, the narrator relays the artistic odyssey (spanning from the mid-70s through the early 80s) of his younger self with flashes of amusement, bewilderment and compassion.

When we meet Youth, he’s railing against both the Baptist Church and his mother’s upwardly mobile aspirations. Soon after, he’s deserting South Central Los Angeles for the coffee shops of Amsterdam where he learns the joys of hash and sex as evidenced in songs, “Welcome to Amsterdam,” “Keys,” “We Just Had Sex,” and “Stoned.” Played by a first-rate onstage quartet led by Christopher Youstra, Stew and Rodewald’s hard driving, often witty score refers to a wide variety of music ranging from guitar-driven rock to new wave to James Brown and even “My Fair Lady.”

Moving on to edgy, pretentious West Berlin, Youth seeks acceptance from a group of wannabe avant-garde performance artists by draping himself with chains and singing about alleged indignities that he’s suffered throughout his imaginary ghetto upbringing — all experiences unrelated to his comfortable life back in the states. Ultimately, circumstances force Youth to revisit the people and places he’s tried so hard to escape.

Staged by Keith Alan Baker and co-director Victoria Joy Murray, Studio 2ndStage’s exuberant production is the first revival since the show’s Broadway run closed in 2008. It’s also the first time that an actor other than Stew has been cast in the anchoring role of narrator. Filling in for the big-bellied Stew is the markedly less rotund but equally charismatic and big-voiced Jahi A. Kearse.

What’s more, 2ndStage has upped the usual seven-person cast to 15, intensifying the work’s theatricality and effectively turning some of the songs into veritable production numbers. The show boasts a terrific cast comprised almost exclusively of young African Americans, emerging performers brimming with talent and energy. Ensemble standouts include Shaunteé Corrina Tabb as Sherry, the church bad girl; and Baye Straight-Forward Harrell who plays Christophe, a Dutch philosopher/part-time sex worker.

Two summers ago, Aaron Reeder received good notices for strutting Studio’s stage in the supporting part of a pissed-off transsexual in 2ndStage’s “Jerry Springer: The Opera” (also staged by Baker). As Youth, Reeder takes center stage with a faultless, strong yet endearing performance, and his songs are the show’s most beautifully delivered. This performance is a true milestone in Reeder’s young career.

2ndStage’s winning effort retains some of the little rock show feel of the New York production. That combined with its humor, heart, relevancy and undeniable energy make “Passing Strange” a best bet for those who love musicals and even those who (typically) don’t.

‘Passing Strange’
Through Aug. 22
Studio 2ndStage
1501 14th St., N.W.

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