Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Passing Strange on PBS Tonight!

Passing Strange, the 2008 musical by Stew and Heidi Rodewald, closed after a too-brief run on Broadway. (In fact, it closed only a few days before I visited New York, to my great distress.)  The rock musical was based on Stew's life, growing up with his mother in a bourgeois African-American community in LA, then bolting for Europe and trying desperately to find his identity and his art. The plot outline is familiar from many coming-of-age stories, but the show is lifted into a higher realm by a really exceptional score. It's real rock music, at times melodic, at times electrifying, with an exceptionally smart and penetrating set of lyrics. To my mind the score sits with Caroline, Or Change and The Light in the Piazza among the very best of the decade just past.

Unfortunately, that wasn't enough to sustain a Broadway run. Despite enthusiastic reviews, it never caught on. The show was too unusual perhaps--it was hard to explain why a rock concert/musical with singer narrating his autobiography while another actor played a younger version of him was worth seeing. It also didn't help that the entire cast was black (still all too rare on Broadway) and that the best songs were either too profane or too long to excerpt well on television (the performance on the Tonys was an excellent example of this--it just came off as lots of jumping around). Or maybe two vibrantly original musicals about minorities starring the composer was one too many, and everyone went to see In The Heights (which is also a wonderful play).

Whatever the reason, the show closed too soon. Luckily, there was a cast album made--which has quickly become one of my most played--and for the last few performances, Spike Lee was there. Apparently Lee had seen the show and loved it, and when the closing was announced he sprung into action, filming the last three performances so that more people could see the show. It was screened at Sundance last January, had a brief theatrical release, and was available for a while on Video On Demand. Yesterday saw the release of the DVD, and tonight it's been shown as part of PBS' Great Performances.

For those in Chicago, it's showing on WTTW from 9-11:30 PM this evening, with a replay on Friday at 2:30 AM. Make sure to see it or set your VCR/DVR for it! I'm DVRing it to watch this weekend, and I'll bring back a report. Make sure to comment with your thoughts when you see it!

Also, I'm seeing three shows in the next three nights: Private Lives at Chicago Shakes tonight, Killer Joe as Profiles tomorrow, and The (edward) Hopper Project, done by WNEP Theatre at the Storefront downtown on Friday. Just like a real critic! Look for reviews early next week.


V.Bee said...

I hate that I missed it. :-(

Monica Reida said...

I only caught the first hour-and-a-half, but I did enjoy it and felt as though some of the shots aided with the mood of the show. I just wish I could've seen it live.