Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Cleveland & Akron

Passing Strange
Karamu House
Review by Mark Horning

Also see Mark's review of White Guy on the Bus and David's review of The Royale


Justin C. Woody, Corlesia Smith, and Joshua McElroy
Photo Courtesy of Karamu House
As you pass the concession counter on your way to the small Karamu Arena Theatre for the production of Stew and Heidi Rodewald's Passing Strange (the newly renovated Jelliffe Theatre is scheduled for its Grand Reopening on June 9, 2018), there is a large box of complimentary foam earplugs on the counter. It is advisable that you take some ear protection into the performing space as you may need it.

Passing Strange is based on Stew's travels as a young itinerant musician who traded a comfortable existence living in the better part of Los Angeles with his mother for a nomadic wondering across Europe in search of himself and "the real."

The show was well received on Broadway by critics and was a contender at the 2008 Tony Awards, with seven nominations and one win for Best Book, but surprisingly it closed after only 165 performances. It has caught on with regional theater companies where as an intimate performance in a smaller space it seems better adapted. The main character is "The Narrator" (Darius J. Stubbs) and he guides the audience along with dialog and song.

Passing Strange is a tale of troubled youth, rebellion, drugs, sex and self-realization as Youth (Justin C. Woody) hops from bed to bed, drug to drug, and music genre to music genre. The show, billed as a "comedy-dark rock musical," has a healthy sampling of self reflection, child-mother conflicts, and the conception of some people of color not being "black enough." There are some absolutely great comic gems such as "Life is a mistake that only art can correct."

As to the music, it is a variety of different types ranging through gospel, blues, jazz, punk, and rock and roll. The songs are tied together with sketchy dialog at best, but it is the music that really carries the show. With this eclectic mix of tunes, it takes a superb orchestra to pull it off and the Ed Ridley, Jr. band (made up of Elijah Gilmore, percussion; Kevin Byous, guitar; Bradford L. McGhee, bass; and Chantrell Lewis, vocals; with Ed on keyboards/conductor) is up to the task.

The songs are well crafted, and such titles as "Sole Brother," "Amsterdam," "Keys," "We Just Had Sex," "Identity," "The Black One," "Come Down Now," and Love Like That" have the small theater rocking.

The cast works extremely well together on the small three-tiered stage while somehow managing to avoid running into each other. Darius J. Stubbs is superb as the Narrator with his fine voice and stage savvy. Justin C. Woody is all energy as Youth, leaving nothing on stage. Treva Offutt does a fine turn as Youth's mother, a woman trying to understand why her son has abandoned his life of privilege for the dubious job of starving musician. Rounding out the ensemble are Carlos Antonio Cruz, Joshua McElroy, Mary-Francis Miller and Corlesia Smith who fill the theater with unbounded energy.

Choreography by Kenya R. Woods, costumes by Inda Blatch-Geib, and lighting and sound design by Rob Peck put this show into the superior category. Nathan A. Lilly does a great job as director of this complex production.

During one of the early musical numbers, "Amsterdam," Mary-Francis Miller and Corlesia Smith, dressed as Air Amsterdam stewardesses, go into the audience passing out boarding passes for a flight to Europe ... and what a trip it is! This is one show that will have you totally involved. Bring a friend.

Passing Strange, through June 3, 2018, at Karamu House's Arena Theatre, 2355 E 89th St., Cleveland OH. Tickets may be purchased online by going to www.karamuhouse.org or by phone by calling (216) 795-7077. Parking is free and secure in a fenced and lighted lot.


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