I went to see Passing Strange when in New York. It came highly recommended by Spike Lee and the only celeb blogger I read, Rosie. (I like her more as a blogger than as a celebrity. That's probably how she'd prefer it.) I thought maybe I could say I saw it before it was a big deal. It had 7 Tony Nominations. It won Best Book of a Musical. Best book? Poor Stew. What do you say to that? He didn't quite know.
I enjoyed it, but there were some things, nothing to do with the musical itself, that made it a less than stellar experience. For one, the theater seats were old, ragged, small, and uncomfortable. For another, I was in the third row (wow yeah the third row) but also right in front of the amplifier, and this was a rock musical. In the big finale, the singers practically screeched, caused feedback, and that hurt.
I've seen enough musicals now that I have some bases for comparison, and I have to say, I can't garner the enthusiasm that Rosie did. A young man sets out around the world on a psycho-spiritual journey, tries to find the "real", expresses his quest through music, and finds the real in the family he left. But too late, or is it too late? I could see how Rosie identified...she often talks about losing her mother as a child...and part of Stew's quest becomes finding his mother's love after she's gone.
He's a black boy who grew up in a middle-class Christian house. Sometimes he presents himself as the ghetto, or as passing for black, thus the title. So while he's seeking the real, he doesn't present his own real self. The real he's looking for is an ideal, and someone points out to him that kind of real can only be found in art. What he's really looking for is "more than real," and that is love, and that is what he left behind when he left his mother and didn't return to visit.
When it comes to a psycho-spiritual journey expressed through a musical, I really like our own home-grown One: The Musical much more. Not that I'm biased or anything. It does reinforce that New York feeling that nothing else exists for them but New York. For me, it goes to show the best art might not be found in New York. (ChezBez, take note.)
I will say I liked the autobiographical nature of it. At least I think it was that, and I liked the way Stew, as an older man, narrated the story, sometimes singing, sometimes interacting with the characters of his past. That dialog of past with present was a nifty sophisticated way to present the story. Also noteworthy was the way all the actors besides Stew and younger Stew switched seemlessly to different characters in Stew's life as he moved around the world.
When I debated with myself over what musical to see, it was between this, or Spring Awakening, or In the Heights. I don't regret my choice, even though In the Heights got more love from the Tonies. Beforehand, I wasn't as drawn to the music. Interesting, now I can't find those videos on the website, and the montage in their place sounds much better.