Tuesday, April 29, 2008
New York, Spring 2008 -- Day Twelve, "Passing Strange" and "Good Boys and True"
"Slaves have options. Escape. Revolt. Death. Cowards have only consequences."
Hearing those words, Youth, the character at the center of "Passing Strange" makes the decision to leave his relatively comfortable middle-class African-American lifestyle and head to Europe to seek a different culture, a place where the boundaries American culture places on black people will have less effect on him. Youth is the younger alter ego of Stew, the musician who created "Passing Strange" to tell his unique (and compelling) story.
Throughout his adolescence, Stew/Youth was an outsider in virtually every aspect of his life, possessing not merely the ordinary teenage outsider angst, but also being black but not "ghetto," smart but living in a milieu that doesn't appreciate his sort of intellect, and musically-gifted but unappreciated. So, in search of a community where he can invent a new life for himself, Stew heads to Amsterdam and Berlin, where he falls in with various groups seeking enlightenment through drugs, sex, rock and roll and art. Especially art. As one character says to him, "when we are in the presence of art, we are taking the cure."
As many of the ads for today's pharmaceutical cures say, "Passing Strange" is "not for everyone." But you don't need to ask your doctor if "Passing Strange" is right for you -- just send me a message and I'll let you know if the show will cure any of your specific ills.
Personally, I loved it. There are many very funny scenes, especially the dialogues between Youth and his Mother (she speaks in a standard, Midwestern sort of way most of the time, but dips into a black dialect when she wants to reprimand or cajole him), and the art performances Stew sees/participates in in Berlin. The wall of colored light that appears when the scene shifts to Amsterdam is bold and adds a needed boost of visual energy.
More of a rock opera than a musical, "Passing Strange" actually tells its story through songs, rather than using songs to embellish moments within a story. It's loud and colorful and smart and entertaining and performed with passion and vigor by Stew and his excellent cast. Most important, it has a real soul at its core, a singular vision being expressed -- something Broadway too often lacks.
"Good Boys and True," by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is currently in early previews at the Second Stage Theatre. Perhaps once the cast has had a chance to become more familiar with their roles and to become more comfortable with their fellow performers and coalesce into an ensemble, the power that I think is there in the text will come through. The story, which takes place at an exclusive, Catholic, boys-only school, is simple: a video tape has been discovered, showing what looks like the captain of the football team having violent sex with an unknown teenage girl. (The story takes place in 1989, pre-YouTube.) Is it, in fact, the handsome, charismatic team captain, son of two doctors, one of whom was a legendary leader and athletic star when he attended the same school? Will the football coach find some way to keep the story under wraps, to deal with it quietly?
There is a lot to like about "Good Boys and True." The set is beautiful -- row upon row of glittering sports trophies, calling to mind the tradition (and priorities) of the school, and allows for almost seamless changes between scenes. The story is interesting and has plenty to draw us in.
Unfortunately, there are still too many wrinkles still to be ironed out of this preview production. The actors, I think, can grow into their roles. The author may find ways of reforming his text to build in a bit more drama. The question is, will they? I'm guessing no.