Passing Strange
Michael J. Mainwaring (Hugo), Deimoni Brewington (Youth), and Imani Branch (Sherry) in Passing Strange at Signature Theatre; Credit: Daniel Rader

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Signature Theatre’s revival of Passing Strange is a witty yet rebellious journey of personal growth that inspires revelations of love, intimacy, and artistry. Originally written by Stew and composed by Stew and Heidi Rodewald, this 1990s concept musical puts a punk spin on “legit” musical theater, similarly drawing influence from the musical traditions of blues, jazz, and funk. The plot extends across several years of adolescence and young adulthood and includes everything from hotboxing in a youth pastor’s minivan to a comic pastiche of the Berlin avant-garde. At its core, however, Passing Strange is a musical about yearning for something “real” and learning a thing or two along the way. Centered on the coming of age of its protagonist—an aspiring musician known only as YouthRaymond O. Caldwell directs Stew’s groundbreaking, Tony Award winner with punk-rock vitality and familial tenderness.

Leading the ensemble are Isaac Deacon Izzy Bell as Narrator and Deimoni Brewington as Youth. Both actors embrace the many parallels between these characters, a relationship best realized in this form of artistic and personal expression. Brewington steps into the lead role with bold authenticity, and, while he remains in the world of the play, he nevertheless connects deeply with the audience. Deacon Izzy actually makes his theatrical debut in a role originated by (and assumed to be an echo of) the musical’s creator, Stew. The Narrator is hardly omniscient, but Deacon Izzy seems to understand exactly his point of view in this journey of memory and self-discovery. 

Passing Strange begins in a Los Angeles suburb as the apathetic Youth longs for meaning, adventure, and excitement. He’s in search of something he can only refer to as “the real.” Youth’s strained relationship with his Mother (Kara-Tameika Watkins) catalyzes his earnest, but nevertheless naive, rebellion. Brewington and Watkins capture this mother/child tension with exacting humility. Watkins assumes the complicated archetype with humor and style. With Mother’s Day on the mind, their relationship epitomizes Stew’s lyric, “Your mother’s love might seem insane/ It’s ‘cause she really knows everything,” and the play slowly reveals how deep this mother’s love can go. 

Youth travels to Europe at the recommendation of his youth pastor Mr. Franklin (played with heartache and a little bit of glamour by Tobias A. Young). When Youth arrives in Amsterdam, he is greeted by the ensemble, each of whom assumes the role of a different Dutch bohemian. Alex De Bard plays a delightfully blasé Mariana, who will quickly form a relationship with Youth, only to become another casualty of his jaded indecision.

When his vision of paradise in Amsterdam sours, Youth travels to Berlin where he takes up residence at ArtHaus, a learning community for young, international artists. Youth is forced to confront his own artistic principles when he feels disconnected to the purpose of his own compositions. He explores his Black identity through music only to find himself confronted by his desire for (but seeming lack of) authenticity in his songs. He has yet to locate “the real.” He also experiences the seedlings of truer, more adult love for fellow artist Desi, played with dynamism by Imani Branch. Michael J. Mainwaring rounds out the cast in a number of roles as comedic characters, each of whom add a touch of ironic whimsy to this musical odyssey. 

Imani Branch (Desi) and Deimoni Brewington (Youth) in Passing Strange at Signature Theatre
Imani Branch (Desi) and Deimoni Brewington (Youth) in Passing Strange at Signature Theatre; Credit: Daniel Rader

This production uses Signature’s smaller ARK Theatre, a choice that likely inspired set designer Jonathan Dahm Robertson to embrace the many intimate confrontations experienced in this play. The scenic design includes a mirage of projections, which are almost astrological in nature. Aided by Alberto Segarra’s lights and Kelly Colburn’s video elements, Signature’s production employs literal and symbolic images to transport the audience in time and space. The overall effect is a constellation of sensory words and images that encapsulates the interplays of lust, love, memory, discovery, Black expression, and artistic yearning—all of which are necessary to frame this story.

As the play brings Youth from place to place, it is never clear where or when his odyssey will end. Wondering if he will return home, and hoping to find “the real” alongside him, audiences have no choice but to take this journey with him. At its root, Passing Strange is a meditation on a mother’s love and the relentless desire to belong. Youth often overlooks and underestimates his mother’s impact on his life, but in the wake of his own mistakes, heartens himself with the idea that “love like that can’t be measured anyway.” Evocatively staged and deeply moving, Passing Strange transports audiences across waters, in and out of memory, and back and forth between youth and adulthood—only to leave them right where they needed to be. 

Passing Strange, directed by Raymond O. Caldwell, with book and lyrics by Stew and music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald, runs through June 18 at Signature Theatre. $40–$98.