Review: Passing Strange (Bailiwick Chicago)

  
  

Bailiwick takes us on a sublime musical journey

  
  

Clockwise from left: LaNisa Frederick, Osiris Khepera, Whitney White, Sharriese Hamilton, Aaron Holland, Steven Perkins in Bailiwick Chicago's 'Passing Strange'. Photo by Jay Kennedy ©2011

   
Bailiwick Chicago presents
  
Passing Strange
   
Written by Stew and Heidi Rodewald
Directed by Lili-Anne Brown
at Chicago Center for the Performing Arts, 777 N. Green (map)
through May 29  |  tickets: $25-$35  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Passing Strange is a supple title for this coming-of-age rock/soul musical/concert. It refers to how life looks to this young black man from Los Angeles–and to how he moves through it as his hero journey takes him to Amsterdam, Berlin and back home. With one of the richest scores this entertainment genre ever needed and a Midwest premiere by Bailiwick Chicago that’s nothing short of terrific, “Passing Strange” is 150 minutes of smart showbiz. Until now I never knew how much a record album could resemble a family album—until it’s, as the British say, a distinction without a difference.

Jayson "JC" Brooks" as the Narrator in Bailiwick Chicago's 'Passing Strange'.It’s also a very specific journey. It begins in 1976 and ends in the early 80s with the protagonist still only 22. Narrating it with a passion to equal the events is Jayson “JC” Brooks, noted for his Coalhouse Walker in Porchlight’s Ragtime. Known simply as Youth (galvanic Steven Perkins), the seeker is first seen trying out and rejecting religions, to the confusion of his tough-loving, church-going mother (a remarkable LaNisa Frederick), who indulges in her own less-than-sacred “Baptist Fashion Show.” The “call and response” fervor of the revival meetings that Youth attends (“Church Blues Revelation/Music Is the Freight Train in Which God Travels”) becomes a style, if not a subject, that he can share in his own songs. But the youth choir is no inspiration, neither is the girlfriend who rejects him because he’s not black enough.

Influenced by the American-fleeing James Baldwin, Youth journeys to Amsterdam to join the reefer rebels at the Headquarters Café Song, find inspiration with the comforting Marianna (Sharriese Hamilton) who gives him her “Keys,” and get stoned in this punk-rock “Paradise.” But it’s all too perfect. There’s no friction to generate the songs expected from an ex-pat alien on the lam from L.A.

This “fiery pilgrim” finally ends up in still-Communist Berlin where Youth gets sucked into the righteously rebellious performance-art scene. There he cultivates his angry “Negritude” and sticks out as “The Black One,” savoring his outsider identity as he joins a commune of agitprop-crazy Reds. (Their cruel Cold War concept is that “What is inside is just a lie,” that we’re just the creatures of capitalism unless we free ourselves through anti-social theatrics.)

     
Clockwise from top left: Sharriese Hamilton, Aaron Holland, Jayson “JC” Brooks, Osiris Khepera, Steven Perkins. Photo by Jay Kennedy, ©2011 Bailiwick A scene from About Face Theatre's 'Passing Strange'. Photo by Jay Kennedy, ©2011
A scene from About Face Theatre's 'Passing Strange'. Photo by Jay Kennedy, ©2011 A scene from About Face Theatre's 'Passing Strange'. Photo by Jay Kennedy, ©2011 A scene from About Face Theatre's 'Passing Strange'. Photo by Jay Kennedy, ©2011 A scene from About Face Theatre's 'Passing Strange'. Photo by Jay Kennedy, ©2011

But one lonely Christmastide, the Youth discovers that even radicals have families to which they return. Perhaps he should go back too. But his mother’s death makes the prodigal’s return to L.A. a bittersweet homecoming (“Passing Phase”). So the Youth’s perpetual tug of war between life and art finally ends in a sardonic thought: “Life is a mess that only art can fix.” Better of “Work the Wound.”

Youth’s quest inevitably conjures up images of Beat Poets on the road, Kerouac-style, as they try by process of elimination to find out what they’re not. Then can come the slow creative accretion that forges their art. It’s never been so eloquent however, with this Tony Award-winning book by Stew (who played the original Narrator) and his cunning, memorable songs (co-written with Heidi Rodewald in collaboration with Annie Dorsen). James Morehad music directs the 22 numbers with a singular love for every note. The Bailiwick ensemble couldn’t be tighter or truer to this multi-textured material.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

From left: David Keller, Billy Bungeroth, Kevin Marks, Jayson “JC” Brooks, Ben Taylor. ©2011 Bailiwick Chicago, Photo by Jay Kennedy

All photos by Jay Kennedy, © 2011

     

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Review – “Songs for a New World”

from-left-jess-godwin-alanda-coon-michael-arthur-and-jays-small.jpgProduction: Songs for a New World

Producers: Bohemian Theatre Ensemble 

Whazzit About? Songs for a New World is a musical review with a very loosely-connected theme, first performed in 1995, featuring songs written by young composer Jason Robert Brown, a precursor to his highly-acclaimed epic musical Parade. Bohemian Theatre first presented this show in late 2007, selling out its last two weeks.  Because of this success, they have (thankfully) reprised the production at the Theater Building for a limited run.    

Strengths: Chicago has always been a great musical-theater town, and this fact is largely evident in this show – the four young performers (Jayson Books, Michael Arthur, Jess Godwin and Alanda Coon) offer up soaring vocals and dead-on ensemble singing.  Jayson Brooks (seen recently as Colehouse Walker in Porchlight’s award-winning Ragtime) is at his best in the energetic second act opener “King of the World”.  Mezzo-soprano Jess Godwin brings sweetness and vulnerability to the lovely “I’m Not Afraid”.  Michael Arthur brings an edginess to the contemplative “She Cries”.  And Alana Coon champions the show with the most variant musical styles, from the punchy “Surabaya-Santa” to the determined “The Flagmaker 1775”.  Though all have great solo voices, the talents of musical director Andra Velis Simon are apparent in the impeccable blend of their group vocals, many of the chords are tight, with dissonant intervals.  In addition to the vocal work, the show looks great, with the set built with wooden ramps and floors, and interwoven slats as a backdrop, giving one the feeling of being inside the hull of a wooden ship.    

Weaknesses: There is little here not to like.  As one of my favorite Chicago theatre critics, John Olson of TalkinBroadway.com, so eloquently put it: “The performances only disappoint in that there still seems to be not enough time to hear each of the four performers sing as much as we’d like. With voices like these in performers who can act the heck of our Brown’s character-driven songs, it’s tempting to wonder why we need dialogue in musical theater at all and to resent it for taking time away from hearing more of these four in their previous musical theater work.”.

Summary: Thankfully for Chicago, Boho has reprised this gem of a show, following their sold-out run at Heartland Studio.  No, it’s not an evening of revelatory aha moments, but the glorious voices and performances of the character-driven material makes for a wonderful evening.  Recommended.

Rating: «««½ 

 Personnel and Show Times

Composer:

Jason Robert Brown
Director: Elizabeth Margolius
Music Director: Andra Velis Simon
Musicians: Kevin Brown, Sean Burke, Nick Sula
Set Designer: John Zuiker
Lights: Julian Pike
Costumes: Theresa Ham
Stage Manager: Meg Love
   
Featuring: Jayson Brooks   (Man 1)
  Michael Arthur   (Man 2)
  Jess Godwin   (Woman 1)
  Alanda Coon   (Woman 2)
   
Dates: Through February 10, 2008
Location: Theatre Building (map)
Show Times: Thursday through Saturday, 8:00pm.  Sunday matinee at 2pm. 

(From Left) Alanda Coon, Michael Arthur, and Jess Godwin