Sean Harris

History Via Minstrelsy

Review of The Scottsboro Boys, Playhouse on Park

As composers of musicals, John Kander and Fred Ebb have a knack for subject matter potentially unsettling. Their Cabaret is having a resurgence in Connecticut, with three productions in 2019, and for obvious reasons. The rise of Nazism in Berlin in the uneasy 1930s finds a ready parallel in the swerve to the Right in many countries in the dwindling twenty-teens of this century.  

At Playhouse on Park through August 4 is a musical by Kander and his late partner Ebb, with book by David Thompson, that is just as timely. The Scottsboro Boys returns to a staggering miscarriage of justice in 1930s’ Alabama that makes us revisit the long, hard fight for civil rights for African Americans in the twentieth century. And it also comments tellingly on the staggering miscarriages of justice that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013—three years after the show opened and closed on Broadway.

The cast of Playhouse on Park’s production of The Scottsboro Boys, directed by Sean Harris (Photographs by Meredith Longo)

The cast of Playhouse on Park’s production of The Scottsboro Boys, directed by Sean Harris (Photographs by Meredith Longo)

At the time there were raised eyebrows—and outright protests—that a modern musical would adapt the manner of the minstrel show, a racist form of entertainment in which white performers, in blackface, imitated and caricatured blacks. Yet the minstrel show format brings to the Scottsboro Boys’ story both a vitality and an irony that would not be easily attainable otherwise. To have these engaging and entertaining actors dancing and singing about such a prickly topic would be unthinkable without the frame: we’re watching a cast who, under the imprimatur of their “master,” the Interlocutor and only white cast member (Dennis Holland, condescendingly grand), are forced to put on a jovial version of an injustice. The vitality comes from the fact that the minstrel show, as a form, influenced so much musical comedy, and the irony comes from the performers as knowing commentators on caricatures.

The story: the “boys” were nine African American youths from age 13 to 20 who were riding a train they had hopped—mostly separately—from Chattanooga to Memphis. A fight broke out when white rail-riders tried to force the blacks off the train. The whites reported to the sheriff in Alabama that they had been attacked, and the nine were detained. Two white women who had also hopped the train (and were possibly soliciting) accused the youths of raping them. With a lynch mob forming, the nine were tried without adequate counsel and were convicted and sentenced to death, despite the medical examiner’s evidence that the women had not been raped. Protests and support from the north—including the NAACP and the U.S. Communist Party—eventually brought about a retrial with Samuel Leibowitz of New York representing the accused. They were found guilty again, though one of the accusers recanted her earlier charge. Retrials continued and eventually, through certain plea deals, the four youngest of the nine were allowed to go free. Another was shot, nonfatally, for attacking a guard, two others escaped. Eventually—but not until 2013!—the three unpardoned were granted posthumous pardons. All had been burdened by their conviction, imprisonment, and the lengthy and publicized trials that continued to uphold the earliest verdict without sufficient evidence (the nine, in their individual defenses, gave contrary evidence as well, at times accusing one or some of the others).

Bones (Ivory Mckay), Tambo (Torrey Linder)

Bones (Ivory Mckay), Tambo (Torrey Linder)

Key to the spin The Scottsboro Boys gives to this material are the traditional minstrel-show roles of Bones (Ivory Mckay) and Tambo (Torrey Linder), two showmen, both excellent, who abound in bad puns, overt silliness, and who project a double-edged awareness that satirizes the conventions of the show as well as the outrageousness of the story the musical tells. They enact a racist white sheriff and his deputy, white lawyers (including a drunk-as-a-skunk defense attorney), and guards. Their obvious fun with these caricatures of caricatures gives even the obvious and corny aspects of the humor its bite. And their showdown in the retrial, as the anti-Semitic Attorney General (Mckay) vs. Leibowitz (Linder), shows how playing upon prejudices will often carry the day.. 

Granted, the Scottsboro story doesn’t have the trajectory of a well-made plot and the collective villainy of the authorities confers a questionable heroism on the nine accused, simply by virtue of being innocent. That means that most of the show’s strength comes from how well it arouses sympathy for the hapless predicament of the accused nine. As Haywood Patterson, who is presented as the strongest willed among them, Troy Valjean Rucker draws attention early in the show with “Nothin’”—a song that sums up a world-weary ethos—and later with “You Can’t Do Me,” a song that registers his unwillingness to admit guilt even if it means getting a pardon. Another standout number is “Never Too Late,” with Jaylan Evans as Ruby Bates, who makes her courtroom retraction an over-the-top, high-stepping vaudeville number.

Center, seated: Heywood Patterson (Troy Valjean Rucker) and Eugene Williams (Trishawn Paul) with the cast of The Scottsboro Boys

Center, seated: Heywood Patterson (Troy Valjean Rucker) and Eugene Williams (Trishawn Paul) with the cast of The Scottsboro Boys

The songs are full of zest, and a few early on—like the anxious “Electric Chair” and the stirring “Go Back Home”—benefit from Trishawn Paul’s lovely tenor. Choreographer Darlene Zoller and director Sean Harris, two of the three founders of Playhouse on Park, maintain the high standard in ending their tenth season that they brought to last season’s closer, In the Heights. While not as exuberant and contemporary as the latter, The Scottsboro Boys earns admiration for its nimble handling of shameful truths—the farce of injustice and overt racism—and for its stripped-down design—which makes the show feel almost improvised—and for keeping its audience in the palm of its hand from the glad-to-meet-you opening to the point at which the troupe departs the frame.

Throughout the show its only female cast member, Renee J. Sutherland, is onstage as “the lady,” an African American woman holding a book and looking on as witness aghast at what she sees, and possibly as researcher encountering this almost forgotten story. At the close of the show, her identity is revealed to show a continuity with what Thompson and company most likely saw as the dawn of a more enlightened age. In any case, reminders are necessary.

 

The Scottsboro Boys
Music and Lyrics by John Kander & Fred Ebb
Book by David Thompson
Directed by Sean Harris
 

Orchestrations: Larry Hochman; Musical Arrangements: Glen Kelly; Vocal Arrangements: David Loud; Choreographer: Darlene Zoller; Music Director: Melanie Guerin; Scenic Designer: David Lewis; Lighting Designer: Johann Fitzpatrick; Costume Designer: Vilinda McGregor; Props Artisan/Set Dresser: Eileen O’Connor; Sound Designer: Rider Q. Stanton; Stage Manager: Mollie Cook

Cast: Cedrick Ekra, Jaylan Evans, Cedric Greene, Jerry Hamilton, Dennis Holland, Torrey Linder, Ivory McKay, Trishawn Paul, Grant Reynolds, Alex Robertson, Troy Valjean Rucker, Justin Sturgis, Renee J. Sutherland

Playhouse on Park
June 26-August 4, 2019

Peter Pan's Origin Story

Review of Peter and the Starcatcher, Playhouse on Park

Ever wonder how Peter Pan became Peter Pan? If yes, then Peter and the Starcatcher, the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Peason and the play adapted from it by Rick Elice, now playing at Playhouse on Park directed by Sean Harris, will be just the ticket. Its conceit is that we’re watching a telling of the story much as children might perform it, with whatever materials come to hand—toy ships, and crates, and bits of rope to outline a ship’s hull. This lends the story a very busy immediacy, charming if a bit belabored.

The telling is worth more than the tale, in many ways, because the twists and turns often seem motivated by nothing more than a desire to keep the episodic story going. That’s particularly true in the setup featuring twin crates on two different ships, the Wasp and the Neverland, that are simply elaborate MacGuffins more or less (one of the crates contains either treasure or stardust, the other sand). Eventually, everyone is off the ships and getting washed up on the shore of an island where magical things begin to happen.

Boy (Jared Starkey) and the cast of Peter and the Starcatcher, Playhouse on Park (photos: Curt Henderson)

Boy (Jared Starkey) and the cast of Peter and the Starcatcher, Playhouse on Park (photos: Curt Henderson)

In the Playhouse on Park production the lively tone, needed for all that exposition, gets bogged-down in the telling. It’s the sort of play that requires very good diction because most of the dialogue is silly, and if you don’t get that, you don’t get much. Silliness is the play’s strength, but here it seems to take a backseat to a certain earnestness that gets in the way.

One could imagine the play done with actual children so as to maintain the childishness the story thrives on—with farts and bad puns and wry slippages (“dyke” for “deck,” for instance). Here, only Natalie Sannes as an indomitable Molly (the girl who becomes a chum to Boy with No Name (Jared Starkey) who will become Peter Pan) fully maintains the requisite sense of make believe, like a child on a playground. If she were, it’s likely she’d be a bit nonplussed that her playmates haven’t her concentration. She’s a delight throughout, acting with an innocent single-mindedness that dissipates for most people around age ten. As Boy, Jared Starkey seems a bit wishywashy in the early going, but grows into the part well, as Peter should. He’s on a learning curve to become a hero, with Molly’s good will making that happen.

Elena V. Levenson (standing), Natalie Sannes (Molly), Prentiss (Brianna Bagley), Ted (Nick Palazzo), Jared Starkey (Boy/Peter)

Elena V. Levenson (standing), Natalie Sannes (Molly), Prentiss (Brianna Bagley), Ted (Nick Palazzo), Jared Starkey (Boy/Peter)

Able support in the large cast comes from Bill Daniels as Slank (one of the ship’s captains) who gets a very funny tragic moment in Act 1, and from Elena V. Levenson as Fighting Prawn, the outrageously Italian “native” king of a tropical island (all the actors play ensemble parts as well and Levenson is particularly busy). Colleen Welsh is better as a Scottish mermaid than she is as the Cockney Mrs. Brumbake, whose always alliterative pronouncements should be clearer and quicker.

As second-in-command to the dastardly villain (we’re getting there), Miss Sandra Mhlongo is a Smee who seems quite at home in the absurdity, and times well her corrections of the boss’s verbal errors. As her master Black Stache, Matthew Quinn gets to chew more scenery than does that fearsome crocodile made of planks. Quinn has assayed the part of Hook in more than one incarnation and he seems to the manner born in his fey and flighty bonhomie and casual malapropisms. One way to know it’s an adventure story is that the villain will be the best part, and that’s certainly true here.

Black Stache (Matthew Quinn, foreground), l. to r.: Smee (Miss Sandra Mhlongo), Slank (Thomas Daniels), Lord Aster (James Patrick Nelson), Mrs. Brumbake (Colleen Welsh), Capt. Robert Falcon Scott (Nicholas Dana Rylands), Alf (James Fairchild)

Black Stache (Matthew Quinn, foreground), l. to r.: Smee (Miss Sandra Mhlongo), Slank (Thomas Daniels), Lord Aster (James Patrick Nelson), Mrs. Brumbake (Colleen Welsh), Capt. Robert Falcon Scott (Nicholas Dana Rylands), Alf (James Fairchild)

The songs, by Wayne Barker, are mostly little ditties that crop up within the narrative, though “Swim On” has the rousing quality necessary for an Act 1 closer. “Mermaid Outta Me,” the Act 2 opener, is even better, abetted by Kate Bunce’s fanciful costumes, and a highpoint of the show, though not much related to the plot.

And that’s pretty much the way of the show—lots of exposition, random action (not all of it necessary, one feels), deliberately bad jokes that don’t always land in all the busyness, halfhearted songs with a few showstoppers, and here and there, something that’s bound to tickle your fancy (at the show I saw, one audience member had an extended laugh at the sight of Alf (James Fairchild) transformed into a mermaid). The staging is quite imaginative, in its own right, and that helps, but, for the sake of the plot, there’s a lot of eager loose-ends-tying at the close simply to make the legend of Peter Pan take shape as it must.

This Peter and the Starcatcher is catch-as-catch-can.

 

Peter and the Starcatcher
A play by Rick Elice
Based on the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson
Music by Wayne Barker
Directed by Sean Harris

Costume Designer: Kate Bunce; Music Director: Melanie Guerin; Lighting Designer: Joe Beumer; Scenic Designer: David Lewis; Stage Manager: Mollie Cook; Properties & Set Dressing: Judi Manfre; Musical Arrangements: Melanie Guerin and Sean Rubin

Cast: Brianna Bagley, Thomas Daniels, James Fairchild, Elena V. Levenson, Miss Sandra Mhlongo, James Patrick Nelson, Nick Palazzo, Matthew Quinn, Nicholas Dana Rylands, Natalie Sannes, Jared Starkey, Colleen Welsh

 

Playhouse on Park
September 12-October 14, 2018

Salsa Opera

Review of In the Heights, Playhouse on Park

Playhouse on Park closes its 2017-18 season with a crowd-pleaser. In the Heights, the pre-Hamilton, Tony-winning musical by the much-celebrated Lin-Manuel Miranda goes over like a party where everyone has a good time, even if there are some weepy moments and some surface tension between friends, family, and lovers. The show doesn’t strive for any big statements or stretch itself looking for gritty drama. Call it salsa opera to differentiate it from the soapy kind, it plays out much the same. Likeable and energetic, the cast make the most of the first act where we’re getting to know our way around a neighborhood—based on where Miranda once lived—in Washington Heights. Act Two, where the plot-points—about beloveds and beloved businesses that may be moving on, and lottery tickets and disapproving elders and flunking out of Stanford—have to find their resolutions, has all the surprise of a story told to children. So much so, I found myself thinking how much In the Heights owes to Avenue Q—staged very successfully at Playhouse on Park back in the fall—which, of course, mimics Sesame Street, which is to say this is theater that owes an awful lot to television.

Sonny (Nick Palazzo), Vanessa (Sophia Introna), Usnavi (Niko Touros), foreground; Nina (Analise Rios), Benny (Leyland Patrick), background (photos by Curt Henderson)

Sonny (Nick Palazzo), Vanessa (Sophia Introna), Usnavi (Niko Touros), foreground; Nina (Analise Rios), Benny (Leyland Patrick), background (photos by Curt Henderson)

But such complaints have to do with Quiara Alegría Hudes’s Book. And who cares about books? What matters here is what happens on stage, and director Sean Harris, choreographer Darlene Zoller, the band led by Melanie Guerin, and the performers bring it. The opening, title song is a stirring blend of rapped lyrics, infectious beats, and a team of dancers managing to look both free and precise. We’re mostly in the palm of the show’s hand from then on, as character after character—there are twelve named roles—wins us over. The opening mood is of a charming bonhomie that cloys a bit, but soon finds its emotional tone when Nina Rosario (Analise Rios) returns to the ’hood, feeling out of place and also ashamed of her lack of candor about her academic standing (“Respire (Breathe)”). Her parents, Kevin (JL Rey) and Camila (Stephanie Pope) own and operate Rosario’s Car and Limousine Service and couldn’t be prouder of their daughter’s scholarship to Stanford. Little do they know.

The fact that some get away from their origins and some get trapped by them is much on Miranda and Hudes’ minds, and they try to have it both ways: making the barrio a familial place that supports and welcomes all even if—as with the authors themselves—many would rather ride some good fortune downtown or out west. Enter that elusive lottery ticket worth $96,000.

The winning nature of the full-cast songs is what sells the show—“When You’re Home,” “The Club,” “Blackout” (the action is set in July, 1999, when there was an 18-hour blackout in the area). We also get a spirited invocation—anachronistically—of carnaval in “Carnaval del Barrio” because, why not? Comic leavening is provided by Piragüero (Willie Marte) and his piragua cart, and by Benny (Leyland Patrick), the go-fer at the cabstand who is sweet on the boss’s daughter, and who gets to sound off entertainingly on the dispatcher mic early on.

Camila (Stephanie Pope) and Nick (JL Rey) Rosario

Camila (Stephanie Pope) and Nick (JL Rey) Rosario

Show-stopping vocal numbers are provided by Amy Jo Philips as Claudia, the honorary “Abuela” of the entire street—her enthralling song explores her own mother’s tagline “Paciencia Y Fe (Patience and Faith)”—and Camila’s “Enough,” a let ’em have it diatribe aimed at her sparring daughter and spouse that Stephanie Pope—seen recently to good effect at Long Wharf’s Crowns—delivers with amazing force. Another of the show’s vocal assets is Sandra Marante who plays Daniela, the no-nonsense owner of a hair salon, and who dresses sharp and moves like the boss of the show. Support is handled by a number of others, such as the sweetly innocent Carla (Paige Buade), the beset but spirited Vanessa (Sophia Introna), the cute and put-upon Sonny (Nick Palazzo), and the street-skills—including tagging and breakdancing—of Graffiti Pete (Paul Edme). As Kevin, Nina’s dad, JL Rey handles well his key song of bathos—“Inútil (Useless)”—and manages to be a paternalistic Papi who isn’t a prick (Miranda and Hudes make sure everyone has redeeming qualities).

Nina Rosario (Analise Rios), Benny (Leyland Patrick), Kevin (JL Rey) and Camila (Stephanie Pope) Rosario

Nina Rosario (Analise Rios), Benny (Leyland Patrick), Kevin (JL Rey) and Camila (Stephanie Pope) Rosario

As Nina, Analise Rios has a sweet and clear voice that mines the beauty in Miranda’s ballads, such as “Respire,”  and especially “Everything I Know,” in Act Two. And as Usnavi de la Vega, the part Miranda originally enacted, Niko Touros is the epitome of a well-meaning, hopeful, hard-working romantic, a street-poet whose raps are his way of capturing his observations, his obsessions, and his heartfelt appreciation of the world he lives in. Like any poet, he knows that any world is all the world, that the people around him are the stuff of song and romance and spirit and grit and that seeing them that way—no matter what they think of themselves—is a find even more sustaining than a winning lottery ticket.

Usnavi de la Vega (Nikos Touros), center, and the cast of In the Heights at Playhouse on Park

Usnavi de la Vega (Nikos Touros), center, and the cast of In the Heights at Playhouse on Park

There’s heart and spirit—and great costumes—aplenty on view In the Heights, where uplift is what you get from others because you give it to them, and vice versa. Dance Captain Olivia Ryan and the ensemble—Gabrielle Baker, Isiah Bostic, Jahlil Burke, Maya Cuevas, Jon Rodriguez—provide plenty of youthful moves whether in a block party or a club. Your toes will be tapping, your eyes drinking in the fun of the big dance numbers, and don’t let the flag-waving of Latin American countries fool you. This is America, amigo.

 

In the Heights
Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Book by Quiara Alegría Hudes
Conceived by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Directed by Sean Harris

Choreographer: Darlene Zoller; Music Director: Melanie Guerin; Scenic Designer: Emily Nichols; Lighting Designer: Aaron Hochheiser; Costume Designer: Emily Nichols; Sound Designer: Joel Abbott; Stage Manager: Corin Killins; Properties & Set Dressing: Eileen O’Connor

Cast: Gabrielle Baker, Isiah Bostic, Paige Buade, Jahlil M. Burke, Maya Cuevas, Paul Edme, Sophia Introna, Sandra Marante, Willie Marte, Nick Palazzo, Leyland Patrick, Amy Jo Phillips, Stephanie Pope, JL Rey, Analise Rios, Jon Rodriguez, Olivia Ryan, Niko Touros

Musicians: Melanie Guerin, keyboard 1 and musical direction; Mark Ceppetelli, keyboard 2; Billy Bivona, guitar; Adam Clark, Sean Rubin, bass; Elliot Wallace, drums; Daryl Belcher, drums; Harry Kliewe, reeds; Tucker Barney, Don Clough, trumpet; Andrew Jones, trombone

Playhouse on Park
June 13-July 29, 2018  

Gotta Dance!

Review of A Chorus Line, Playhouse on Park

A Pulitzer Prize winner in 1976, A Chorus Line, book by James Kirkwood, Jr., and Nicholas Dante, isn’t much of a play. More even than most musicals, it only works because of the songs—music by Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics by Edward Kleban—and the dance routines. That’s fitting, since the play is about the hopes and humiliations, the joys and defeats of trying to maintain a career as a chorus line dancer. I imagine its main claim to distinction, back in the Seventies, was in its humanizing of the usually faceless professionals whose precision forms the undeviating oneness of the quintessential Broadway chorus line. In pursuing that theme, rather relentlessly, the play puts real life on the stage while maintaining the romance with the stage that drives the show’s aspirants.

Zach (Eric S. Robertson, in white vest) with assistant Larry (Spencer Pond), and the cast of A Chorus Line (photo: Rich Wagner)

Zach (Eric S. Robertson, in white vest) with assistant Larry (Spencer Pond), and the cast of A Chorus Line (photo: Rich Wagner)

The play’s claim on our attention now, in a mostly non-professional production at Playhouse on Park, directed by co-artistic directors Sean Harris and Darlene Zoller, with choreography by Zoller, is the way it puts its dancers through paces that impress us with their facility in such an intimate space. We do feel like a fly on the wall of the rehearsal room as try-outs take place, governed by Zach (Eric S. Robertson), who is mostly humorless, detached, and unsympathetic. Even when confronted by a former lover, Cassie (Michelle Pruiett), who has had some star turns without becoming a star and wants to come back to the chorus line, though not back to him, Zach never becomes a character. Cassie fairs a bit better—she at least gets a great dance routine to express herself with—but the lack of real interest in their story is evident in the script itself. All the show’s interest lies in the tell-all autobiographies Zach manages to elicit from his auditioning group.

Cassie (Michelle Pruiett), solo dance routine (photo: Rich Wagner)

Cassie (Michelle Pruiett), solo dance routine (photo: Rich Wagner)

After first pruning a few from the opening routine, Zach has 17 to choose from for a cast of 8, four men and four women. That means a harsh principle of selection will apply, and his coercing of personal info from the dancers can seem awfully manipulative, given that most of them won’t be getting a job. The power play behind theater is always in evidence, and the degree to which the successful candidates here must both expose and efface themselves is what drives the drama.

As do the stories we hear: a few are amusing and upbeat, such as the stellar moves Mike (Alex Polzun) puts into “I Can Do That,” or Bobby (Peej Mele)’s dry take on growing up in Buffalo, or a charming tale of teen cluelessness from Mark (Jared Starkey); others are ironic, as in Val (Andree Buccheri)’s take on the part looks play in a successful stage career (“Dance: Ten, Looks: Three”), or Diana (Bobbi Barricella)’s tale of rejection by an early theater teacher (“Nothing”), or simply comic—Kristine (Mallory Cunninghams)’s song, abetted by her husband Al (Jeremy Seiner), in which she proves she can’t sing (“Sing”); then there’s Sheila (Tracey Mellon)’s tale of a rough home life juxtaposed with the enthrallment of performance (“At the Ballet”), or Paul (Tino Ardiente)’s tale of how his work in a drag review provoked his inadvertent coming-out to his parents. Because the stories keep close to what actual people might reveal of themselves, they manage to avoid outright cliché, though the influence of A Chorus Line is bound to make the stories feel familiar even if you haven’t seen the show before. But the reason to see it again is to see how a new battery of try-outs take to the parts.

Most are well-cast, and most acquit themselves well, though sometimes lyrics become a bit unintelligible, whether that’s due to the quality of the mics each performer wears or to the fact that it’s easy to get breathless when singing and dancing simultaneously. In the end, you may not agree with Zach’s selection of the final 8, but that will have to do with how you respond to the individual characters, and probably the individual actors, and that’s probably the point. Mellon’s Sheila, for instance, doesn’t make the cut, but she’s certainly an asset to this production, while other choices, such as Richie (Ronnie Bowman, Jr.), are no-brainers.

Greg (Max Weinstein), Sheila (Tracey Mellon), Richie (Ronnie Bowman, Jr.), Judy (Cara Rashkin), and the cast of A Chorus Line (photo: Rich Wagner)

Greg (Max Weinstein), Sheila (Tracey Mellon), Richie (Ronnie Bowman, Jr.), Judy (Cara Rashkin), and the cast of A Chorus Line (photo: Rich Wagner)

As a tribute to the trials of playing anonymous parts in big shows, the show draws in viewer sympathy and the rousing number “What We Do For Love,” led by Barricella’s lovely voice, moves beyond any sense of exploitation as we realize that the fictional cast’s participation is not about money or fame or even a secure career; it’s about love of the work and of performing. Without a show in which to show off their skills and talents, these performers have nothing but the mostly drab lives they narrate. The contrast between their humble origins and their talent is the point. The Playhouse production, in using students—several now or recently at the Hartt School—and non-professionals, underscores that the talent to perform is what drives theater. And the relative inexperience of the cast makes the characters’ roles as naive hopefuls all the more convincing, and their talented turns all the more impressive.

 

A Chorus Line
Conceived and originally directed and choreographed by Michael Bennett
Book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante
Music by Marvin Hamlisch
Lyrics by Edward Kleban
Directed by Sean Harris and Darlene Zoller
Music Directors: Emmett Drake and Michael Morris

Choreographer: Darlene Zoller; Costume Designer: Lisa Steier; Assistant Choreographer: Spencer Pond; Lighting Designer: Christopher Bell; Scenic Designer: Christopher Hoyt; Sound Designer: Joel Abbott; Properties Master: Pamela Lang

Playhouse on Park
June 15—July 31, 2016

Finding the Real

Review of Passing Strange at Playhouse on Park

Playhouse on Park’s production of Passing Strange, by musical and performance artist Stew, directed by Sean Harris, makes full use of the theater’s intimate thrust stage, as the cast move all through the space, accompanied by a four-piece band led by a dynamic narrator/singer/master of ceremonies, Darryl Jovan Williams. With “Narrator” as our guide, we follow the story of  “the Youth” (Eric R. Williams), a young black man from a middle-class suburb of L.A., coming of age in the late Seventies, much like Stew himself. Everyone seems to be having a wonderful time telling this story and the ensemble’s joy—in the music, in movement, in singing, and in acting a variety of characters—will put a smile on your face.

Skyler Volpe, Eric R. Williams, Garrett Turner

Skyler Volpe, Eric R. Williams, Garrett Turner

One of the more refreshing aspects of the Youth’s story is his self-conscious realization that, in cultural terms, he’s “passing for black.” Sure, he’s black to the white folks he hangs out with—in his hometown, and then in Amsterdam and then in Berlin—but he knows that trying to be “ghetto” so as to gain street cred among the radical “nowhaus” group he hangs with in Germany is a bit absurd, and finally a woman (Karissa Harris) he’s trying to woo calls him on it. The Youth is not quite a playa—only because he was too well brought up by his well-meaning mother (Famecia Ward)—but he’s not above trading on stereotypical notions when it serves his purpose, and some of the best humor of the show comes from our awareness of his awareness of how jive he allows himself to be, at times. A real strength of this production is that Eric R. Williams plays Youth’s self-conscious cool so well; Williams gives the part a likable earnestness that should have wide appeal—to any current or former youths bent on self-discovery, or, as he puts it, “finding the real.”

the cast and drummer of Passing Strange

the cast and drummer of Passing Strange

Stew’s story gets right certain very real elements of Seventies life. First, there’s the widespread social acceptance of drugs: the Youth gets turned on to grass by the closeted gay leader of the church choir (Garrett Turner has fun with the more flamboyant roles in the show), then later has an anxiety-provoking acid trip. Then there’s the fact that many of the victories of the civil rights era seem like second nature. The Youth is already bored about having to genuflect to black cultural leaders—his first act of rebellion, after dropping out of the choir (which he joined because gospel music seemed to him like rock), is to form a punk band that sounds pretty authentic indeed. Elsewhere there’s fun with European art-house cinema, but one suspects that neither cast nor director has spent a lot of time with the genre since that segment feels more like Hollywood melodrama than Godard-inflected disaffect.

Watching the very busy and energetic ensemble transform before our eyes from L.A. kids to hip Dutch to molotov-cocktail-hurling German radicals is one of the delights of the show. There’s also a captivating lyrical moment when the lovely Marianna (Skyler Volpe), an Amsterdam squatter, makes a gift to our vagabond hero of the keys to her flat. Stew and his musical collaborator Heidi Rodewald know how to bring out the lyricism of fleeting romance and Williams and Volpe, et al., do the song full justice. Later, the irony that Berlin radicals, bent upon remaking society, go home for the holidays leaves Youth high and dry, since he’s trying hard to avoid returning to a mother who can’t understand his flight to freedom.

Though he leaves her behind and has to insist, to her importuning phone call before Christmas, that his home is Berlin, not L.A., the bond between mother and son accounts for the emotional uplift the show ends on, though it’s not quite enough. All along we’ve been enjoying the candid depiction of a self-centered, self-serving “talent” who manipulates situations to his ends. In realizing his younger self has been unfairly neglectful of his mother, the Narrator, as Youth grown-up, or Stew, offers Passing Strange as a kind of confession for the sake of atonement. How moving that effort is depends on how much we want our hero to learn a lesson about family ties.

Darryl Jovan Williams (Narrator)

Darryl Jovan Williams (Narrator)

As the story is not big on surprises—its main tensions are of the “I gotta be me” variety typical of stories of artists in popular genres—the change of gear near the close amounts to growth and moral improvement. Soulful enough in the more emotional tunes, like “Work the Wound,” the production really cooks when the cast and band are making the most of the full-throttle raves. While a heartfelt comeuppance to the callowness of Youth—and youth—is inspiring enough, the real passion of the show is in the celebration of music as a form of art that can make up for failures in life. It’s “passing strange”—in a phrase Stew borrows from Othello—how Youth passes through cultural identities and from youth to maturity, but the pay-off is in how well his work lives up to that journey. Passing Strange does—and so does Playhouse on Park’s production.

Passing Strange
Book and lyrics by Stew
Music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald
Created in collaboration with Annie Dorsen
Directed by Sean Harris
Choreography by Darlene Zoller

Cast: Karissa Harris; Garrett Turner; Skyler Volpe; J’Royce; Famecia Ward; Darryl Jovan Williams; Eric R. Williams

Playhouse on Park
December 2-20, 2015