James Joyce’s alter-ego Stephen Dedalus advocated silence, exile and cunning in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; this musical self-portrait has cult singer-songwriter Stew, frontman of the band the Negro Problem, opting for a youthful exile that’s guile-free and turned to 11. The teenage Youth (Perkins) ditches the cultural desert of Southern California for a Europe that represents all at once Godard’s high art, Baldwin and Baker’s escape from racism, and Amsterdam’s abundant sex and drugs. He finds an uneasy home in Berlin’s astringent, radical art scene by downplaying his comfortable roots, performing what Germans imagine as authentic blackness. All along, we can measure his journey’s payoff in this idiosyncratic triumph, at once Proustian and soulful, a deep, big-hearted vision of bohemia’s splendors and costs.
An extraordinary cast powers Bailiwick’s Midwestern premiere of the show. While Perkins’s sly charm as the Youth dominates, there’s not a weak spot in the supporting performances: Osiris Khepera’s waspish Mr. Franklin, Frederick’s long-suffering Mother and Aaron Holland’s wickedly brilliant Mr. Venus all contribute to Passing Strange’s rich tonal palette. Brooks, in the Narrator role first played by Stew himself, makes a snappy and engaging MC, and his Uptown Sound does wonders with Stew’s eclectic score; his relative youth, though, blunts the impact of the piece’s fearsome climax, in which the Narrator and his younger self square off over the claims of art and life before staging a dramatic resurrection to beat The Winter’s Tale. It’s a small flaw in a production that does full justice to this fascinating, inspiring work.