It's an age-old story: A talented young man leaves home in search of. . . something.
Maybe it's freedom, maybe it's riches, or sex, or rock-and roll. He travels the world, meeting all kinds of people, enduring heartache and headache, pleasure and pain, still searching.
Sound like Candide? Or maybe Jacques Brel? Or perhaps Pippin?
There are some similar stylistic and philosophical moments, but at the end, "Passing Strange," is its own show, and an excellent one. It opened last night as a production of New Line Theatre at Washington University's South Campus Theatre, to run through Oct. 15. It's an exciting melange of musical styles, with seven outstanding performers sizzling across the stage, set in 1976 in the South Central area of Los Angeles.
Written by Mark Stewart, who has become Stew, as if he were a single-named Brazilian soccer star, wrote book, music and lyrics, with Heidi Rosewald credited as co-composer. The show earned seven Tony Award nominations in 2007, with Stew winning a Tony for best book.
The evening is practically all music, all the time, ranging across practically every style, and director Scott Miller has a good time with the ribald lyrics and sensual action that are an almost-constant presence. The cast is led by Keith Parker as the Youth, who leaves home and the Mother (Talichia Noah) who loves him. As he wanders, he is accompanied by a Narrator, played by Charles Glenn as a preacher, teacher and general adviser, singing in a rich bass voice that rolls out the notes as if they were chocolate chips in a cookie.
The other four actors, Jeanitta Perkins, Andrea Purnell, John Reed II and Cecil E. Washington Jr., each play a variety of roles, handling them with class and style. All come into conflict, or fall in love, or interact with the Youth. who is accused in a European sequence of suffering from "ghetto angst" because he did not live in one as a boy. There is a chant of "art is a mistake that only life can correct,"
Stew's writing is clever, with fine word plays, and Parker shows outstanding singing ability. Perkins, Purnell and Noah show off rich vocal strength, and Reed excels as the Rev. Jones in a California church and as Joop in an Amsterdam marijuana bar.
Justin Smolik, from the keyboard, leads the first-rate New Line band, with D. Mike Bauer and Aaron Doerr on guitar, Dave Hall on bass and Clancy Newell on percussion. Todd Schaefer's simple set involves sturdy tables and and chairs, moved by the cast into various combinations, and Kenneth Zinkl's lighting design emphasizes the action. It's an interesting, fast-paced evening of musical theater with an exciting score, typical of the off-beat, difficult-to- characterize New Line productions.
Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg
Passing Strange, a production of New Line Theatre at the Washington University South Campus Theatre, opened last night and will run through Oct., 15