I’m writing this blog post half way around the world, in Hong Kong, mercifully away from the rain and cold that has caught Chicago in their grip. I don’t get back to the US until after the long Memorial Day weekend holiday, but I thought I’d pass on to my blog readers that Bailiwick Chicago’s production of Passing Strange is closing this Sunday, May 29. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should go during this holiday weekend (it would be a more rational alternative to having a cookout in fifty degree damp weather), since I thought it was one of the most enjoyable productions of the spring theater season.
I wasn’t able to catch the Broadway production from several years back, but I’ve always wondered how a regional theater could successfully put on Passing Strange, given that the reviews of the show indicated how the musical was such a personal portrait of its star, the singer-musician Stew. But Bailiwick found in lead actor Jayson Brooks someone who actually is as charismatic, as riveting, and as vocally impressive as the show’s original star. Passing Strange, despite a strong, musically-diverse score from Stew and Heidi Rodewald, ultimately has a book that comes across as Eat Pray Love, young musician version, with drugs and lots of Berlin sex, and unfortunately without Javier Bardem. The show probably played differently with Stew performing in it, because the audience knew he lived those scenes (or variations of them) in real life. It is critical then, in my opinion, to have the Narrator, if it’s not played by Stew, to really make us care about this rite of passage story we’ve seen so often before. And Brooks sells the story smoothly, forcefully, empathically. If I had a complaint with the Bailiwick production, it is that I want to see more of Brooks, I want to have him more in the forefront of the scenes, since he is such an interesting, mesmerizing stage presence. I think the cast is terrific, with special props to LaNisa Renee Frederick, so poignant as Mother. Frederick sings beautifully, but also communicates very clearly the heart-wrenching loneliness and confusion of a mother slowly drifting apart from her teen-age son. Lili-Anne Brown’s direction makes effective use of the small (well small-ish with a band and the cast all on it at the same time) stage, but I’m a little confused with the use of an obstructing platform on stage left which requires the actors to make their entrances and exits bent over. It’s a little thing, though, for a show that will make you sing of life and love at the end of the evening.
Passing Strange is at the Chicago Center for Performing Arts, 777 N. Green St., until this Sunday, May 29.
Tags: Bailiwick Chicago