The first third of Passing Strange, due to technical problems with the microphone levels or physical problems with the three-pronged staging, passes by more than strangely; it's downright bad. If there is a difference between "the sacred and the profane," Stew doesn't connect to it until deep in the second act, and the only reason I stayed through intermission was because some of the lyrics were cute ("We just had sex/there's nothing nasty about a reflex") and because Annie Dorsen's direction, as subtle and submerged at times as the band, showed a lot of promise. On all other accounts, this coming-of-age story could just have well pulled its title from the next line of Othello's monologue and gone with "Wondrous Pitiful."
But don't let the dancing lights and neon choreography of the background's light wall fool you, and don't be thrown by the way Stew alternates between spoken word and verse, or the way he uses scenes as the bridges for his songs. By the time our hero alights in Amsterdam, he truly has left behind the puerile and pot-headed choir and his erstwhile garage band, and when Stew starts with the gospel-rock repetition of "It's Alright," we're as convinced as he is. The music has managed, as promised in the opening, to go right over my head and to my soul.
There's one more twist when our protagonist, Youth, heads to Berlin. Stew's still there with the meta- jokes: "There was supposed to be a showtune here, but then I remembered, we don't write those," he apologizes, and then goes on to satirize art-house noir. And his triple-cast actors (De'Adre Aziza, Colman Domingo, Chad Goodridge, and Rebecca Naomi Jones) are really flexing their ranges here, particularly Domingo, as a Riff-Raff-like Mr. Venus ("What's inside is just a lie"). But it's here that the Youth's quest to realize the Real (which is really Stew's quest, and any true artist's quest) is fulfilled, in a heartbreaking parallel between Daniel Breaker (Youth) and Stew. His breaking of the forth-wall isn't just an epiphany, but it's a genuine connection with the audience, and a dropping of the "theatrical haze" (that's a double entendre) that threatens the overall show with general malaise.
"When paradise takes no effort/when the Real becomes routine," is an early warning sung to our hero, and it's a message that Stew should simply taken even further to heart. His final act is a tremendous accomplishment, and if he can find a way to maintain the narrative journey while keeping us as rapt as with the end, Passing Strange will be staying strange. For instance, Breaker shines at the end, but as with his supporting role in Well, he's forced to hold back his talent to that point: unfair, both to the audience and to the actor.
Structural nitpicks aside, Passing Strange is an invigorating coming-of-age story and a visceral imperative to all the artists out there who are afraid or restrained by their dreams. Funny, quirky, and, sure, strange, there's a big and meaty musical adventure hidden behind the cute comedy, and you'd be wrong to pass this show up.