Passing Strange, Young Vic, 2024
Photo: Marc Brenner
  • Theatre, Musicals
  • Recommended

Review

Passing Strange

3 out of 5 stars

Giles Terera is excellent in this enjoyably different if palpably self-regarding musical coming-of-age story

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Time Out says

This 2008 Tony Award-winning, semi-autobiographical rock musical swaggers onto the Young Vic’s main stage in a blaze of colour and sound and with a hefty wink at the audience, as it makes its belated European debut. Beginning in a stiflingly church-overshadowed late 1970s California, we follow the Black American Youth (Keenan Munn-Francis) as he escapes to Europe to discover ‘the real’ through music. Our guide across this genre-hopping, guitar-driven landscape of self-discovery and loss is his older self, the Narrator, played by Olivier-winning ex-‘Hamilton’ star Giles Terera.

With book and lyrics by Stew – aka US musican Mark Stewart, who drew inspiration from his own life – and music by Heidi Rodewald, ‘Passing Strange’ passes comment on itself from the start. Initially, its meta narrative provides a wry commentary on ‘respectability’ in Youth’s experience of the Black church he is cajoled into attending by his mother, where he ends up smoking weed with the pastor’s closeted son (also the conductor of the choir). ‘Passing’ becomes the show’s theme as Youth rebels against one identity only to play up other personas in order to fit in, initially, with the joints and free love of Amsterdam and then the piercings and performance-art protest of Berlin.

Liesel Tommy’s staging of the show has charisma to spare, as the rest of the ensemble cast move seamlessly around the four-strong, on-stage band whose banter with the Narrator provides a playful undernote to Stew’s almost novelistic script. Terera is the lynchpin here, tying emotional loose ends together with effortless dexterity. The fine texture of his singing is matched by the emotions that play subliminally across his face as he pays witness to his younger self’s choices. As the blues chill into blurry psychedelia before shattering into a parody of thrash metal, he creates an easy camaraderie with us. He holds everything together in a light, assured grasp.

Munn-Francis is an affecting counterpoint as Youth, believably mixing innocence, bluster and bewilderment in his efforts to find himself in song. Rachel Adedji digs into the emotional depths as well as the humour of Youth’s ‘respectably suited’ mother. Renee Lamb, David Albury, Nadia Violet Johnson and Caleb Roberts provide a revolving door of characters met by our ‘pilgrim’ on his quasi-spiritual musical journey. They’re brightly coloured landmarks on the route that this show charts as it explores, sometimes thrillingly, a philosophical landscape of identity, belonging and finding meaning in art to a – literal – drumbeat.

And yet it’s quietly – but persistently – undermined by a sardonic tone that never quite succeeds as much as you’re willing it to in places. The stereotypes it plays up, particularly in Berlin Wall-era Germany, feel like a very ‘American eye’ view of Europe. Their obviousness reflects a script that’s so enthralled to how funny it thinks it is, we’re sometimes cut out of the loop. This production wants to have its cake and eat it, expecting us to laugh at everything, but to take its own brand of earnestness seriously. Still, when the emotional beats hit their mark, they do so powerfully and lyrically.

Details

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Price:
£15-£52. Runs 2hr 35min
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