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Theatre Review: Passing Strange fills the Garden Theater with emotion

Anne Evans Anne Evans Theatre Review: Passing Strange fills the Garden Theater with emotion
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Short North Stage returned to the main stage of The Garden Theater over the weekend to present Passing Strange, the final musical in their regular 2012-2013 season. Set Director Rob Kuhn has done a wonderful job transforming the stage. Short North Stage has once again chosen a work where the rawness of the theater enhances the story.

Passing Strange on the main stage of The Garden Theater.

Passing Strange is a narrated tale that follows the African-American boy Youth (Taylor Moss) as he grows up and chooses a path for his life. Ron Jenkins is perfect as the narrator. With witty remarks, an unmatched enthusiasm, and soulful songs, he immerses the audience in the play – the story of his life.

Passing Strange opens in a nice home in a pleasant area of Los Angeles with the youth’s mother (Michelle Golden) rousing him from bed. He is about fourteen years of age. It’s a Sunday and she is pleading with him to go to church with her, an activity neither of them actually seem too fond of.

The two make it to church and the youth feels as if all eyes are on him. After the very lively dance number ‘Baptist Fashion Show,‘ the youth has a realization about church – it’s a fantastic display of rock and roll and that’s what really gets him excited. His mother is not impressed.

His new love of music, and perhaps cute co-ed Mia Angelique Fowler, lead him to joining the church choir and making new friends Hugo (Rico Parker), Sherry (Zoe Lathan) and closeted choir director Mr. Franklin (David Glover). When choir practice turns out to be getting high in a tiny car, the cramped scene leads to a touching moment between the youth and Mr. Franklin, who shares how trapped he feels in his life. It’s that moment where our pilgrim decides to pursue music as his destiny and make his own life.

Ron Jenkins as Narrator and Taylor Moss as Youth in Passing Strange.

Jenkins excels at the narrator – he injects himself into the story when necessary, and also into the audience, sprinkles in jokes, and moves the play along. The play spans 8 years of the Youth’s life, and at nearly three hours (with intermission) it gets a bit long. We see the youth start a band in LA, make the move to Amsterdam alone to find himself, make another move to the cultural capital of Berlin, and then finally return home.

Taylor Moss as Youth, arriving in Berlin in the midst of a riot.

Parker, Lathan, Glover, and Flower each play a new character for each scene and they are all distinctly different. Each of Glover’s characters are over-the-top. Glover’s characters range the full spectrum of feelings and he masters it all. As Mr. Venus in Berlin, his solo Surface is quite intense, sometimes to the level of discomfort, but that’s part of the show for the character.

One of the standout scenes is Lathan and Moss sharing a tender moment during the song Damage. Lathan’s strong vocals fill the room with emotion as she tells him that things between them were just “starting to feel real” and that she is there if he will fully open his heart to her.

Taylor Moss as Youth and Zoe Lathan as Desi in Passing Strange.

The five main actors are excellently cast and no matter the scene, they feel like a group of friends. Music led by P. Tim Valentine adds another level of enjoyment. As the youth’s mother, Golden appears throughout the play to portray a mother’s struggles at seeing her baby “growing into a living thing.” Golden brings raw emotion to her last phone-call with her irritated son and it’s upsetting.

The unexpected sadness of the final scene emphasizes not to take anything for granted, and that every now and again, you should stop and re-evaluate the path your life is on. An off-the-cuff decision you made in the middle of your teens may not apply later on in life and understanding love is just as important as having it.

This retelling of Passing Strange will make you really feel something.

Photos by Megan Leigh.

Passing Stange plays at the Short North Stage’s Garden Theater. Music and Lyrics by Stew. Directed by Mark Clayton Southers. Remaining showtimes: April 21, 28 & May 5 at 3pm, April 26, 27 & May 3, 4 at 8pm. Tickets are $30. Visit shortnorthstage.org for more information.

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