Monday, December 7, 2015

Theater Review: Passing Strange -- Playhouse on Park

Darryl Jovan Williams (Narrator) and Eric R Williams (Youth). Photo: Rich Wagner
Passing Through Phases of Life to a Rock Beat and Finding Out What’s Really Important
By Lauren Yarger
Here’s a "don’t miss" of the season: Passing Strange at Playhouse on Park.

It is one of only a handful of regional productions of the rock musical which won a 2008 Tony Award for book writer Stew, who also writes the lyrics and co-writes the music with Heidi Rodewald. The musical was created in collaboration with Annie Dorsen and subsequently was made into a movie by Spike Lee.

This production in West Hartford, directed by Sean Harris, features a tight ensemble with strong performances, including a silky-voiced Darryl Jovan Williams as the narrator (the part originally played by Stew).

The narrator takes us on a journey of a young, African-American song writer trying to find himself in late 1970s Los Angeles. The youth (Eric R. Williams) lives at home with a mother (Famecia Ward) who tries to get him to go to church. He finally succumbs and joins the youth choir, where he grows disillusioned by hypocrisy of the members, particularly the pastor’s son, Franklin (Garrett Turner), who is a pot-smoking, closeted homosexual. He leaves home for Amsterdam, where he experiences the freedom of drugs and sex and a relationship with Marianna (Skyler Volpe). Still seeking fulfillment, he heads to Berlin where he finds success as an artist, but “passes” for a troubled black man. The truth is, his upbringing wasn’t all that bad….

Eventually he finds himself back in LA,  with some understanding of what really is important in life.

Not only is this production a rare opportunity to see this musical (and so well staged), but it is chance to see some fabulous choreography by Darlene Zoller (who artistic directs at Playhouse on Park with Harris.) I was blown away. 

Movements help develop characters (and there a bunch of them with actors playing multiple roles, so this is helpful). Zoller manages to give each actor unique choreography, so even when moving together, there are slight variations which provide depth rather than just motion. Zoller also resists the temptation to have actors always in motion, even if the beat of the music would seem an easy prompt. Instead, she has them still at times, and that has more impact than a synchronized dance ever would.

Also enhancing the production is expert lighting design by Marcus Abbott. Lighting defines scenes and supports (as in letting us see the haze of hashish smoke enveloping Stew).

Passing Strange plays at Playhouse on Park , 244 Park Road, West Hartford through Dec. 20. Performances are Wednesdays and Thursdays: 7:30 pm; Fridays, Saturdays at 8 pm; Sundays at 2 pm. Tickets $32.50-$42.50 (860) 523-5900 x10;  www.playhouseonpark.org.

Cast and creative:
Musical Direction by Michael M. Morris , Scenic Design by Emily Nichols, Lighting Design by Marcus Abbott, Costume Design by Kate Bunce, Props by Pam Lang, Sound Design by Joel Abbott.
Darryl Jovan Williams…. Narrator
Eric R. Williams…. Youth
Famecia Ward…. Mother
Karissa Harris…. Sherry, Mrs. Kelso, Renata, Desi
Skyler Volpe…. Edwina, Marianna, Sudabey
Garrett Turner, J'royce.... Ensemble

Audience members will be given the opportunity to join in making music during an Open Mic Night Saturday, Dec. 12. This special event is BYOB, free and open to the public. The music continues after the show, and an accompanist will be provided.

Note: Due to language and drug use, Passing Strange is recommended for ages 13 and up.  

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)

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