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Just Stew being Stew

What makes the musical "Passing Strange" original theater is its nontheater origins: The songwriter's pop show.

October 22, 2006|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

Berkeley — STEPPING outside the studio where the new rock musical "Passing Strange" is being rehearsed -- and "rock musical" seems inadequate for a play that has dispensed with conventional notions of who gets to make musicals, how and for whom -- you quickly get a sense that this is not show business as usual.

Here's the lithe blond choreographer -- knighted in France for her innovations in modern dance -- sticking her hands in her armpits and flapping her elbows at the Juilliard-trained Shakespearean actor.

"That was great, that was inspired -- your chicken," a smiling Karole Armitage exclaims to Daniel Breaker. Minutes before, during the show's first full practice run-through, he'd improvised a flutter from the Funky Chicken to go with the spins and dips in a James Brown-like dance eruption. Maybe it will be a keeper when the show opens Wednesday at Berkeley Repertory Theatre and moves in January to the Public Theater in New York.

"Passing Strange," a co-production of the theaters, is primarily the creation of Stew (born Mark Stewart), a beefy, middle-age L.A. rock musician known only to a smattering of the cognoscenti who have picked up on his decade-long recording and touring career in pop's deep underground, where he fronts a band called the Negro Problem. The band's name toys wryly with Stew's position as a black man hailing from central Los Angeles who performs catchy story-songs that are strong on characterization, owing more to the Beatles or Randy Newman than to the groove-oriented, funky-beat norm generally expected of black musicians. At 45, Stew is a personable fellow with a flinty streak. Don't even get him started on the music industry, which he holds responsible for, among other sins, creating a fallacious racial divide between black music and white.

"Passing Strange" is a fictionalized take on Stew's own coming of age from the mid-1970s to the early '80s. We meet his alter-ego -- known simply as Youth and played by Breaker -- as a reluctant choirboy in a black Baptist church, see him evolve into a howling punk rocker, then cringe at choices he makes as an expatriate tyro artiste, neglecting his ties with home while diving into a new life as the dark-skinned golden boy of an abrasive, anarchistic performance art collective in West Berlin. Heidi Rodewald, the Pomona-raised rocker who is Stew's longtime bandmate and romantic partner, wrote about half the music. Annie Dorsen, a young director who specializes in the offbeat, is their co-creator and guide to the theater realm.

Stew plays the Narrator, ensconced at center stage and strapped to his Epiphone electric guitar. He speaks or sings much of the story, including passages peppered with his customary wordplay, cultural allusions high and low, and an energized verbal attack akin to that of a Beat poet.

The show's six actors are African Americans; four of them double as black Angelenos and white Europeans. The four-member rock band, including Rodewald on bass, will be tucked like musical prairie dogs into separate burrows in the stage. Eschewing conventional musical "numbers," the show is structured as an undulating, nonstop ride, with music flowing under many of the spoken parts. The score hopscotches through an assortment of styles, including hammering industrial beats for the performance art, a cheeky cha-cha called "We Just Had Sex" and a concluding oom-pah-pah German beer hall drinking song that celebrates life in the moment while confronting the specter of death.

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'A different musical voice'

THE driving impulse behind "Passing Strange" is to create a story told through rock music on a rocker's own terms, without trying to pass for something more pre-digestibly familiar to fans of musical theater. "It's an extension of Stew's art, his personality, his way of doing things," Dorsen says. "It's not so much that we're in rebellion against those traditional ways musicals get built, but we pay them no mind." Choreographer Armitage, far from trying to emboss the show with her personal stamp, hopes the movement on stage will disappear into the storytelling. "There's nothing that should look like dance," she says.

"It's certainly not a show that can be filed under any normal kind of definition," says Rebecca Jones, a young veteran of touring productions of "Rent" and "Caroline, or Change" who plays an assortment of characters, including Youth's German girlfriend.

Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public, says he's lost for comparisons. "I have thought and thought and thought about this and have failed to come up with one."

Tony Taccone, the Berkeley Rep artistic director, who collaborated with Eustis during the early 1990s as they midwifed another show that offered something different and hard to describe -- Tony Kushner's "Angels in America" -- is leery of making broad claims of innovation: " "We are trying to say gently to people, 'There's a different musical voice here, and he's found his own form.' "

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