Excellent “Passing Strange” at The Pollard

Anna Holloway Published: August 14, 2013

The title is from a line in Othello, and it was inspired by the insularity of an American president. “Passing Strange,” a Tony-award winning musical play, is playing in Guthrie, making an all too brief stop at the Pollard. Written by Stew and his collaborator Heidi Rodewald, it’s a journey through life in search of what “can only be found in art.” This production is spare and rich at the same time, and director Timothy Stewart with musical director Louise Goldberg and choreographer Christopher Castleberry are to be congratulated on the result. Do not miss “Passing Strange.”

The Narrator (Pollard Artistic Director Jerome Stevenson) guides us through the story of The Youth, played with vulnerable bravado by Gerrin Mitchell, on a journey from his middle-class American home and back—passing through teen angst and rebellion, culture shock in Europe, sexual and emotional and artistic exploration, and some seriously fine music on his quest for “the real.” He encounters the “bad kids” in the church choir and the youth choir director who is passing for straight and tells The Youth, “Slaves have options…cowards don’t.” The Youth leaves his Mother (a strong and grounded performance by DeLanie Brewer) for Europe to find those options and encounters new and unexpected modes of self-exploration and artistic expression.

His journey takes him from one set of cultural challenges to another, passing through worlds of chemical and sexual freedom that affirm his rebellion even as they challenge his sense of self. We travel with him as he finds those options and sometimes chooses poorly. The Youth encounters a world of people played by four versatile and talented performers: Matthew Alvin Brown, Rory Littleton, Rhianna Mack, and Jennifer Teel. All are strong singers as well as flexible and dynamic actors, and they deliver a range of stunningly convincing characters, etched onto human canvas with clear and specific strokes. Littleton, who came to the production with only a week to prepare, is evocative and ferocious; Mack inhabits roles both sensual and mechanical—sometimes both at once! Teel’s musical and emotional versatility color several roles, and Brown turns in a tour de force as everything from a teen rocker to a German performance artist. Stevenson is ideally suited for the demanding role of The Narrator. His rock-star voice, ranging in tone from mellow to abrasive, and his commanding presence could easily overpower the story, but Stevenson delivers a balanced performance with an uninhibited commitment to the music.

“Passing Strange” is recommended for mature audiences (sexual and drug references—no nudity). Because the show speaks to how we survive our late adolescence and become the adults we are, younger audiences may find that the material hits too close to home. If you don’t already know that you really will make it through the emotional rollercoaster of late puberty, this story may feel like a false promise. As The Youth says, “If it were any more real, it’d be fiction.” For those of us who have endured our own rites of passage, this show underscores that survival with a wide range of musical expressions that carry us through the story.

Four talented musicians help us seamlessly navigate the passage from scene to scene: drummer Elyse Angelo and bassist Stefani Fortney keep the show moving on a solid foundation; Jason Hunt on guitar and Goldberg on guitar and keyboards round out the band. Angelo, Hunt, and Goldberg also contribute vocals and occasional commentary. Goldberg and the cast have managed a rock-oriented musical with clear diction and delivery throughout—a rare accomplishment.

Do not miss “Passing Strange.”

“Passing Strange” runs Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night at 8 p.m. through August 18 at The Pollard Theatre in Guthrie, 120 W. Harrison. Contact the Pollard Box office at 405-282-2800 or purchase tickets online at www.thepollard.org.