Sunday, March 16, 2008

Hot Lights @ Passing Strange


Now, we knew Passing Strange was a great show, what with the amazing casting and performances. Now the lighting designers are all up in it as well:

The 2008 Broadway Lighting Master Classes on May 20-22, 2008 in New York City at Skirball Center for the Performing Arts at NYU, will attend the hot new Broadway musical, Passing Strange, with lighting by Kevin Adams—last season’s Tony Award winner for the lighting of Spring Awakening (which the BLMC saw last year). Described in the New York Times as a “bracingly inventive show,” Passing Strange has some of the most singularly original lighting ever to hit Broadway. The BLMC will attend the show on Wednesday evening, May 21, 2008 followed by a Q&A post-show in the theatre, and an in-depth discussion of the lighting at the classes the next day by Kevin Adams.


A little more on that casting. The musical features performances by de'Adre Aziza, Daniel Breaker, Eisa Davis, Colman Domingo, Chad Goodridge and Rebecca Naomi Jones. Then there's the tasty band, serving up great music, some of whom were also a part of the show since its Berkeley Rep days and/or members of Stew and Heidi Rodewald's band The Negro Problem: Christian Cassan on drums, Christian Gibbs (aka Lucinda Black Bear, C. Gibbs) on guitar and fingered hair (when you see the show you'll know what I mean), Heidi Rodewald on bass and feminist Greek chorus (again, see it), and Jon Spurney on keyboards and classic rock defense Greek chorus (again...). Each of the cast members, with the exception Breaker, Davis, and Stew as the Narrator, is called upon to play multiple characters, some have an arc and some operate as various backing choruses in group scenes, as a result the audience is privy to the marked versatility of each of those performers and it's quite exciting to experience. I've already noted the multi-talented gifts of Davis who plays Mother, here, and the New York Times recently did a fine profile on her varied accomplishments and skills.

As for the rest of the casting, Aziza (above right, with Breaker at The Public's staging of Passing Strange) is a revelation as she gets to play three different characters over the course of the play, the sexy, future Miss Black America church princess whose intonations, vocal gestures and gesticulations along with her disdainful loose-limbed insouciance completely bring this character to life in a matter of seconds. Then there's the Dutch lover who liberates the protagonist from his sense of shame and displacement with her guileless welcome, her casual yet sensual grace has her criss-crossing the downstage with the fluid rhythm of a wave. Lastly there's her seemingly opposite embodiment of the German pornographer (to paraphrase her painfully earnest description: "my films have fully dressed men in business suits making corporate deals." Thanks, Stew. Who knew it was possible to make a good humanist/feminist joke about the Marxian concept of excess?). This character was palpably uncomfortable in her own body, every movement martial, stiff, and controlled, as though her muscles were on a permanent flight or fight setting. Somehow this character seemed a foot taller than the ones Aziza had previously inhabited yet still with a posture weighed down by some invisible load. Same shoes, it was just Aziza's training, stagecraft, and talent at work. It's always funny to me that it often takes a dancer or someone with similar physical training and body awareness to realistically portray someone who is so awkward in their own skin. Aziza studied acting, singing, and dance at the Harlem School of the Arts and Dance Theater of Harlem, as well as NYU's Tisch School of the Arts.

Mr. Domingo, as Colman Domingo is also known, has a similar acumen which I knew from having seen him during his San Francisco theater days and he stunned me then with the energy and focus he brought to his roles. (Domingo has appeared on numerous stages in the Bay Area including those of the Guthrie, Berkeley Rep, Shakespeare Santa Cruz, California Shakespeare, A.C.T., as well as Boston's Huntington Theatre, and has also appeared in several Off-Broadway productions, additionally he's a playwright and has been on faculty at the National Theater Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center). Here he projects the same laser focus and commitment playing Franklin, the minister's son and closeted gay choir director. Like many a gay choir director the closet is one of language--of the don't ask, don't tell variety. Franklin's mannerisms and sense of style mark him as either a dandy from another world, a child of James Baldwin, or the silent gay man whose only flag of liberation is the allowance of these gestural give-aways. As Franklin he provides the play with one of its most poignant moments. It succeeds based on Domingo's skill as Breaker's character's intentionally clueless demeanor doesn't readily hold a space of support for his cast mate--Domingo is pretty sailing out there by himself as Franklin delineates the difference between a slave and a coward from a primarily fixed sitting position. Domingo has only his arms, voice and face as instruments to make what could be a maudlin moment one of gravitas and sincere pathos. I don't want to give anything away, I'll just say pay attention during this scene: it's a key turning point. Plus it's truly a mini-master class. Later Domingo resurfaces as a transgender German performance artist (Domingo pictured above left with Stew and Breaker) whose intensity is beyond edgy; the actor could power up a good chunk of the lighting design as he rasps the mantra, "What's inside is just a lie!" He scared me, but I just couldn't look away--I kept looking up at him with a big grin on my face (inside a little voice was cheering, "It's Colman Domingo! THE Colman Domingo, on BROADWAY! YEA! He is SO amazing! He SO deserves to be HERE acting his heart OUT! I'm so happy I get to see it!" Yes, I am that kind of theater nerd, but fortunately, I can keep that inside voice--inside). Goodridge (pictured right with Breaker and Davis, with Stew in the background) who studied theater at Dartmouth College (apparently a pretty strong program) is called upon to be the most chameleonic of the cast, playing a Baptist-style animated church minister, a simultaneously intimidating and faceless German officer, a would-be delinquent church kid with feet of clay, a puckish Dutch sex worker and performance artist, and a rather stern lovelorn German writer/activist. He's believable at every turn, although his preacher doesn't quite have the elderly carriage of a man with a full-grown son.

Jones
, like co-star Goodridge, is a theater/arts baby from jump--according to her bio, her father sang to her just after she'd been delivered in the hospital. She waved her hands in time with the music, and her musician father declared that with those long fingers she would be a pianist. He was right. Most of her childhood was spent in piano, dance and acting classes, she went on to attend the North Carolina School of the Arts. And she does play a little piano in the show. Jones operates somewhat under the radar in a series of background sidekick/friend roles until the last third of the play when she shines as the German lover and activist who is organizing a revolution pragmatically centered on love (Jones pictured left). She's the woman, aside from his mother, who seems to have the most chance of touching the emotional core of the Youth played by Daniel Breaker. Her depiction of the emotional arc of an independent, intelligent woman falling in love who is also honest enough to face love's human limitations head-on, slowly draws us in as Jones disappears into the portrayal. She shows the strength and vulnerability in this woman's absolute openness--it's intimidating to the protagonist and causes the audience to catch their breath as well. About that protagonist, played ably and with alternating shades of adolescent moodiness and obnoxious bravado, awed young adult self-discovery, and armed denial by young Shakespearian actor Daniel Breaker. Breaker was trained at Juilliard and has further honed his skills at Washington D.C.'s Shakespeare Company whose artistic director, Michael Kahn, is also the long-time head of Juilliard's drama division. Of Breaker's training and work at Shakespeare Company, Kahn has said:

"There's nobody who took the training more seriously than Daniel," Kahn says. "He has a huge natural ability, but it all shows up because of his hard work. His sense of craft, his work ethic, are extraordinary and very rare in this day and age."

And the Washington Post's Peter Marks has written:

What also distinguishes Breaker is a charismatic oneness with verse. He has the ability to make ancient language completely his own. There is, too, that ineffable quality of an actor in his element, that feeling radiating across the footlights that he's exactly where he belongs.

Former Army-kid (born: Manhattan, Kansas; raised: all over, including Germany) Breaker (pictured right, in the foreground, Stew as Narrator in background) brings his Bard-trained ear for music and language to his role Passing Strange, for which he did not have to audition. Apparently, he was at the Sundance Theater institute for another project and got pulled in to the neighboring Passing Strange workshop when they "needed a black guy," and the rest is, or will be, history. I think it's funny that Breaker is actually a classical music freak and he's got a Brahms score and and Mahler poster up in his dressing room. When an interviewer asked about how that stands with being in a rock musical, Breaker responded, "Some could say that Mahler 9 is pretty rockin'." Yep, I believe I know a few folks who have written part of a dissertation and/or scholarly article making just that point, albeit a bit less explicitly.

Don't you think it's about time you got your tickets? You can find out about getting discounted tix through May 18th by either going online to BroadwayOffers.com or calling them at 212-947-8844, and using code PSTCX33.

Endnote:
Why did I mention the institutional training of each of the actors in Passing Strange (Eisa Davis was also a theater baby, taking classical piano lessons, and dance classes in her youth, graduating from Harvard and obtaining an M.F.A from the Actors Studio)? Well reader, because of a recent comment by Melvin Gibbs during a Black History Month gig Harriet Tubman played at the Brooklyn Museum as reported by Bold As Love. As Rob Fields/Bold As Love noted:

I also liked that he [Melvin Gibbs] made the following point: What the audience was hearing was the result of many years of hard work (it's called practice)--not some Heaven-sent, God-given talent--on the part of each member of the group. I guess he's run into a lot of people who thinks what he does is magical and mysterious. Well, it's certainly inspired. All of their [Harriet Tubman's] performances were, but those performances didn't come out of nowhere. So I'm glad he spoke on the natural talent vs. good protestant work ethic divide that's plagued Black musicians and athletes for ages. Speak on it, I say.

I differ with this a little, as I believe that talent does play a part in any artistic success, but ultimately the development of that talent requires commitment and discipline, a serious work ethic (which I don't believe is the exclusive domain of Protestants, but I figure Mr. Fields was just using a popular turn of phrase). Whether the actors appearing in Passing Strange studied acting in prestigious and rigorous institutions, honed their chops on theater circuits, or both, what you see up on that stage at the Belasco is the result of years of commitment and hard work to develop the God-given (or whatever spirit you may or may not believe in) talent those folks were birthed with. I, for one, deeply appreciate the dedication that each of them has brought to their craft.

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7 Comments:

At 8:06 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi,

I saw Passing Strange off Broadway and I also thought it was great. I just got tickets to see it on broadway and used this discount from BroadwayBox to get cheaper tickers http://www.broadwaybox.com/shows/passing_strange_nyc_tickets.aspx
hope it helps anyone else who thinks of seeing it after reading this great review!

 
At 10:43 PM, Blogger John K said...

I really am hoping to see this when I'm back next week! Thanks for writing about it and keeping it out there, Audiologo.

 
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