Antipodes Theatre Company successfully taps into the zeitgeist with the Australian premiere of Passing Strange.
Given the current keen interest in diversity, and black voices in particular, Passing Strange was somewhat ahead of its time when it played on Broadway in 2008. As is often the case in Australia, it takes a visionary independent company to present a show that has been ignored by mainstream commercial producers.
Antipodes Theatre Company has assembled an authentic company of performers and musicians to freely pour their collective energy into the vibrantly intense performance that Passing Strange both needs and deserves.
Constructed as a memory play, Passing Strange is anchored by Augustin Tchantcho, whose narration of the journey of the Youth is far from passive in nature. Often approaching the heightened mania of a fever dream, the story is nonetheless grounded in reality, also coloured by plenty of quirky humour.
Having come of age in the late 1970s in South Central LA, composer/lyricist/book writer Stew has based the show upon his own life. The Youth journeys from church choir to his own short-lived rock band before travelling to live in Amsterdam and then Berlin. HIs quest for reality is contrasted with his deceit of his new Berlin friends; much as his grandmother “passed” for white to gain employment, the Youth passes himself as a struggling African American stereotype, belying his comfortable middle class upbringing.
Composed by Stew and Heidi Rodewald, Passing Strange is almost through-sung, creating the vibe of attending a rock concert rather than traditional musical theatre. The small amount of dialogue has a sense of the poetic, with the Narrator speaking in verse and the Youth ending act one with the striking poem “Today in Amsterdam.”
On keys, musical director Marissa Saroca leads fellow band members Chelsea Allen, Will Gijsbers and Christopher Michigan, each contributing additional backing vocals. For an unfamiliar show, the lyrics are clear and accessible, much as there is further work needed from the sound desk in picking up all of the microphone cues. The musical performance of the four musicians and seven cast members is of an incredibly high energy, with the audience finding themselves readily tapping and swaying along with the infectious music.
Director Dean Drieberg also contributes mightily to the throbbing pulse of the show, keeping the storytelling stakes high and having the cast in almost constant motion. The performance space is wide and narrow, with only three long rows of seating. While this means that the cast members often need to traverse from one end of the stage to the other, the payoff is an inalienable bond between artists and audience that raises the emotional impact of the show.
Supported by the insightful writing, Drieberg creates a strong sense of place in each of the locales where the Youth spends time. Playing multiple roles, the ensemble members successfully craft distinct characterisations that create the scope of a show with a much larger cast.
Working efficiently with minimal space, choreographer Loredo Malcolm sets aside rigid moves to allow the cast to groovily feel the music move through their bodies. Lighting designer Sam Wylie uses vivid colour to create differing locations. The rear vertical strips of lights tint the costumes in multiple shades thanks to the clever concept of costume designer Bianca Pardo to dress the cast completely in pale grey.
Seated centrally amidst the band on a slightly higher plane than the cast, Tchantcho performs with commanding authority tinged with wry humour and moments of tender warmth. The sterling quality of Tchantcho’s work is a key attraction of the production.
Perfectly cast as the wide-eyed Youth, Grant Young is an engaging, thoroughly likeable performer whom the audience is more than happy to follow on his journey of self discovery. A strong singer and lithe mover, Young is completely at home on stage, exhibiting a ready charisma underpinned with the necessary vulnerability of the character.
Although a little young for the role of Mother, Sasha Hennequin makes the role her own, making an impact in moments where Mother amusingly switches between naturalism and heightened “black church lady” expression.
As with these three lead players (and, for that matter, the four musicians), each ensemble member gives their heart to the show, with each performer immersing themselves in the characters and action to create a cohesive whole that is collectively stronger than the sum of its parts.
Audiences looking for intense, edgy musical theatre will be very well served by Passing Strange.
Photos: Angel Leggas