As I attempt to hold off on putting the finishing touches on this all too interesting paper I’m writing on Freudian and Jungian takes on female representations in Fellini’s “8 1/2” (Not!), I was reminded of perhaps one of the best shows I’ve ever seen on Broadway–Stew and Heidi Rodewald’s “Passing Strange,” which played the Great White Way during the first half of 2008. Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect when I grabbed my seat at the Belasco Theatre during a snowy evening performance. I’d heard mixed reviews, mostly focusing on the fact that there was, indeed, a song entitled “We Just Had Sex,” and the oft-used comment of “you’ll either get it and love it or not get it and hate it.”
Well, a few hours later, I got it–and loved it. To put it simply, the show tells the story of the Youth’s cultural awakening from middle class Black Los Angeles to the hazy lazy languish of Amsterdam to the harsh riot-world of Berlin. And that’s really reducing the show to it’s basics. In reality, it deals with so much more–the existential search for the “real” in a world of illusions, the disconnect between your past (and the loving parent, or parents, involved in it) and the new persona you’re trying to fashion, callous self-isolation in the name of art versus true loving connection, and all those great things. And it’s funny. Like really funny. Not in a bad slapstick Broadway sort of way, but in a thinking-person, unpretentious, “hey that was a fantastic reference” sort of guffaws.
Take this example, from the (ironic and awesome) song “Merci beaucoup, M. Godard,” which happens right as the Youth takes off to Europe, land of intellectuals, ladies with libidos, and real! high! art!: “Naked girls at breakfast tables/Talking Hegel and Camus/While men dressed up in Galouises smoke quote Marx right back at you/All this might seem obscure that would depend on/Who you are/Fellini, Truffaut, Pasolini, and don’t forget Monsieur Godard/Can you dig it?” Okay, maybe this is only funny to me because I have fallen down the trap of “let’s romanticize Europe” (and I fell hard, may I add), but who with vaguely arty life ambitions hasn’t had idealized version of some super-chic, super-intellectual other life in a land far, far away?
Stew himself played the role of a interacting narrator who is part of the story and propels it forward. What a stage presence. And the music–it’s a fantastic mixture of rock, gospel, funk, pop, and everything in between. A song will start out in one place and then take you to two more places musically that you never saw coming before it’s through (which can be a bad thing, but in this place, it’s a good thing).
Honestly, there are a select few theatrical experiences that really stick in my mind clearly (I see a lot of shows after all), but here I am raving about a show that closed up shop two years ago, still clearly remembering that feeling of awe and pure elation that seeing something truly unique, groundbreaking, and different gives you. If your interest is piqued, pick up the film that Spike Lee made of the show (I haven’t actually had a chance to check it out, but this is a show that you should see visually, as the performances really were spectacular by the small cast) or check out the cast recording, which was taped live. Stew and Heidi Rodewald are also premiering a new conceptual concert called “Making It” this weekend at St. Ann’s Warehouse, and if you can snag tickets to the extremely short run (I think it’s something like six performances), I recommend seeing the man in action, because he is a force to be reckoned with.