Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

To Be Young, Gifted, and On Broadway

August 19, 2009

The cast of Passing Strange

Late August is one of those brief pauses where the music and theater performance calendar can get mighty thin just before the new season comes to life with activity. But if you are in need of something to hold you over until then, I’d highly recommend you check with your cable provider about a special on-demand event coming you way next week. It’s the first broadly available screenings of Passing Strange: The Movie which will be available through the newly launched Sundance Selects service starting August 26 and will have a theatrical run in New York starting this weekend following positive receptions in a variety of film festivals earlier in the year. It’s the latest film from director Spike Lee and is essentially a filmed performance of the recently closed Broadway production of the Tony-winning musical from the minds of Stew and Heidi Rodewald.

Set in Stew’s native Los Angeles as well as Amsterdam and Berlin, the musical is a semi-autobiographical portrait of the artist as a young man. Stew recounts his falling in love with music in Los Angeles in the 70s and his subsequent travels around the globe in pursuit of his art and eventual maturity. Think Purple Rain without the high-heels and Apollonia. It’s not new territory, but Passing Strange is a remarkably well written and energetic show largely uninterested with Broadway musical conventions. Actually, despite the rags to rock riches, the story has less in common with other rock films than it does with Spike Lee’s own Crooklyn. At its heart, Stew’s tale is one that concerns a nostalgic view of the past wrapped in the primal tragedy of a mother’s death through the eyes of her wandering child. Given his familiarity with the material, Spike Lee has done a remarkable job in translating a three dimensional experience into the requisite two of the flat screen world. Although Passing Strange incorporates a great deal of neon lighting and large background elements for its otherwise stripped down numbers, Lee avoids static shots of the whole stage almost entirely, favoring a far more intimate approach often getting in close not only with the actors, but also looking out at the audience as a whole from the casts’ vantage point.

Daniel Breaker (front) and Stew in Passing Strange

But despite the ending you can see from a mile away and some pro forma romance, this filmed version of Passing Strange is incredibly satisfying. It’s full of life and excitement and musical surprises. And it's very, very smart on a variety of topics from race to art. It has both a witty tongue and a philosophical mind. It also features the incredible performances of Daniel Breaker, de’Adre Aziza, Eisa Davis, Colman Domingo, Chad Goodridge, and Rebecca Naomi Jones all of whom were at the top of their game by the time this more lasting document was made at the end of the show's run. So much to see, how could you miss it?

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