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In Passing Strange, a middle-aged rocker looks back on an odyssey of self-discovery and experimentation.

3.5 out of 4 stars

Title
Passing Strange
Written by
Stew and Heidi Rodewald
Directed by
Philip Akin
Actors
Jahlen Barnes, Divine Brown, Beau Dixon, Peter Fernandes, David Lopez, Sabryn Rock and Vanessa Sears
Venue
Opera House
City
Toronto

Can we get real for a second? Big question. What's real, though? Bigger question.

In a much-alive rock musical and memory play that has landed in Toronto as a happening of soulful melodies, charismatic performances and a curious pursuit of "the Real," questions on life, art and racial authenticity are likeably considered. Full of spirit and inclusive of Jimi Hendrix quotes and Othello allusions, the late-seventies-set Passing Strange is as deep as you wish. Come for the music, stay for the ideas and enjoy the occasional pop-cultural reference to such things as the sky-high hit-makers the Fifth Dimension.

Passing Strange was dreamed up by the American indie-musician Stew (a.k.a. Mark Stewart). He and Passing Strange collaborator Heidi Rodewald founded the band the Negro Problem, purveyors of what he has dubbed "Afro-Baroque cabaret." Opening on Broadway in 2008, the musical went on to capture imaginations and seven Tony Award nominations.

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We should see Passing Strange as semi-autobiographical. In its original production, Stew performed as the musical's funky narrator, looking back on an odyssey of self-discovery – from his middle-class upbringing in Los Angeles, to sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll in Amsterdam, to an encounter with art-house anarchists in Berlin.

In Toronto, an austerely staged Passing Strange is presented (by Acting Up Stage Company and Obsidian Theatre) under the proscenium arch of the just-grungy-enough rock club the Opera House, set up with cabaret-style seating.

That's not Stew onstage narrating as the middle-aged rocker, but actor Beau Dixon. He holds an electric guitar and sets the L.A. scene: "A coloured paradise where the palm trees swayed." The narrator's younger self is called "Youth," the story's African-American protagonist representing artists at the beginning of their journey.

Youth's mother is played by the excellent Divine Brown, a singer-actress with big, vivacious talent. Mother pays special attention to the right appearance for church – "My, you're looking very Marilyn McCoo today," she is told – and the appropriate level of "blackness" displayed. Her 14-year-old son, Youth, dismisses the "Baptist fashion show," but his visit to church is revelatory, starting with the ecstatic gospel music before moving on to a bossy choir girl.

She tells the boy that he needs a little soul – "you need to blacken up," is how she puts it. The choir director is the suave son-of-the-preacher piano player who smokes dope and fills the boy's head with psychedelic European dreams.

Raucous gospel music gives way to a garage band, which eventually falls apart. "It's been two years and I can't find my natural sense of rhythm," a frustrated drummer complains.

Passing Strange covers much ground stylistically, but the genres – gospel, punk, psychedelic blues and more – represent experimentation more than the musical's genre. And while the narrator is dismissive of show tunes and boasts of Passing Strange's idiosyncratic score, there's plenty of standard soulful balladry offered up.

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But, anyway, it's all about the song, with songwriting standing in for all artistic expression at least and a metaphor for life's path at most. "Sometimes the melody's goin' one way," we are told, "but the song has other plans."

The specifics of the narrative and any emotional investment in the characters – even the only main one, Youth – almost seem beside the point. Indeed, one might find Youth as the least interesting character. Moreover, while the actor who portrays him (Jahlen Barnes) is fine, his performance was less magnetic than the ones from Brown and, in particular, David Lopez, a scene-stealing tall drink of water as the James Baldwin-quoting choir leader and, later, an eccentric Berlin bohemian.

Baldwin said, "Life is more important than art; that's what makes art important." Passing Strange tell us that life is a series of consequences of youth that art can help correct.

As for the Real, the narrator's ultimate realization is that authenticity is arrived at individually and over a lifetime – a "personal sunset."

So, the artist's haul is long and alone. Space is conquered by movement, which is how we pass from one place to another, and how we become what we are not. In philosophy and entertainment, Passing Strange is more than passing time, for real.

Passing Strange continues to Feb. 5 (obsidiantheatre.com).

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