PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Passing Strange — Home Cooking with a Hearty Stew

Opening Night   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Passing Strange — Home Cooking with a Hearty Stew Not only was the joint jumpin', the balcony was bouncin' — alarmingly! — Feb. 28 when Passing Strange settled snugly into the bygone rococo wonderland of the Belasco.
Daniel Breaker, de'Adre Aziza, Colman Domingo, Eisa Davis, Chad Goodridge, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Heidi Rodewald, Stew and Annie Dorsen.
Daniel Breaker, de'Adre Aziza, Colman Domingo, Eisa Davis, Chad Goodridge, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Heidi Rodewald, Stew and Annie Dorsen. Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Old Broadway met New Broadway under one roof that was at various intervals in the evening being raised by this hard-driving rain of rock, pop, funk, punk, gospel and blues.

Somebody with an otherwise one-note moniker of Stew composed the above with the assistance of Heidi Rodewald and did his own lyrics — or, more accurately, chants.

Midway through the first act, three little words — "I'm All Right," repeated over and over again ("about eight thousand times" is the lyricist's modest estimate) — work hypnotic wonders on the audience. If you can break out of the spell and look around you, you'll see hundreds of heads bopping to and fro like an overcharged dodo bird dunking for water.

"I thought it was a religious experience tonight — that's how deep it was," confessed one contented customer — Jerry Stiller — at the after-party, the first Broadway event held at the elegant new Espace on West (Very West) 42nd Street. "I was viscerally moved. I lost track of words and didn't deal with anything but the emotion that swept through my body."

No less an authoritative blackbeard than James Lipton agreed with him. "The theatre rocked tonight," the "Inside the Actor's Studio" host said. "It's a breakthrough musical." As if harder evidence was required, Marian Seldes stepped to the center of the vast first-room and, flanked on all fronts by exuberant first-nighters, revived a long-lost theatrical tradition —the Reading of the Review (in this case, Charles Isherwood's rhapsodic notice in The New York Times). All raves should be so eloquently enunciated.

"I haven't seen anything like that in 20 years!" exclaimed Aubrey Bernard, senior writer for The New York Beacon. The reader of the review goes back much farther than that, however. "The last time I heard a review read at an opening night party," said La Seldes, "was when I was in Ondine with Audrey Hepburn. We were at Sardi's." The reader, she relayed, was the play's director, Alfred Lunt.

Stew took such extravagant responses in stride, as if they went with the territory. No, he didn't particularly notice what a passionate crowd he was playing to on opening night "because we just do our show," he said with real matter-of-factness. "It's the normal thing for rock 'n' roll. We try to engage people, make them understand that what's happening is happening in the moment. We're living human beings up there performing. We're not automatons. We're not robots. We're real — so you can yell back at us. You can say 'It's All Right' back. It's call-and-response, y'know. It's a rock 'n' roll thing."

His director, Broadway-debuting too like Stew — Annie Dorsen — seconded that: "That's the whole hybrid of the rock 'n' roll concert and theatre. The thing that you do when the crowd is hot at a rock show is just keep going — when it's good, you just keep going — and so we tried to incorporate a lot of that. There's some flexibility — when it's a really lively audience — to take it to another place. The actors, the band — all 11 people up there — are so attuned to each other now that they make a lot of little decisions. It's a rock show out of which a play emerges. I don't know if that's good marketing copy, but it's accurate."

Passing Strange came from rock roots, from pub to Public — from Joe's Pub to, next door, The Public Theater, which 40 years ago was The House of Hair, a milestone in pop-rock musicals. "We always thought there was something a little magical about the fact that The Public was the commissioning theatre that started this crazy project," admitted director Dorsen. "The idea at first was that Stew and Heidi should work on something for the theatre, but I think that might have been a cabaret show. Then, they met me, and we fell into working together and got more and more ambitious. A lot of things really came through the process together. We discovered what the play was about as we developed it."

The producers at the party sported headgear a long way from the snappy Fedoras favored by the producers in The Producers — warm, wintry, knitted stocking caps with the show's logo splashed across. "Stew always wears a hat like that in the winter so the kids in the office had these made up for me," lead producer Liz McCann offered by way of an explanation, but she was hard-pressed to explain the immediate hosannas for Passing Strange. "I can't quite take it all in," admitted the lady who got Edward Albee's Goat and took it not only to Broadway but to the Tony podium as the Best Play of 2002.

Albee was one of two Pulitzer Prize-winners at the opening — the other: Toni Morrison — but he skipped the party, being two weeks away from 80 and three weeks away from opening a double-bill revival of his The American Dream and The Sandbox that he is directing at the Cherry Lane Theatre. Brian Murray, fresh from Albee's latest (Me, Myself and I) which world-premiered at the McCarter last month and may well make it to Broadway by McCann next fall, also turned out in support of his frequent producer.

Looking like some towering Viking god in his new producer-chapeau, The Public's Oskar Eustis crowed that Passing Strange was "the first time I've taken something from inception and gotten it all the way to Broadway," but he added the cautionary footnotes that (1) he wasn't kingpin at The Public at the time and (2) that it really wasn't his idea.

Spike Lee, Martha Plimpton, Jerry Stiller, Deborah Harry, James Lipton, Rosie Perez, John Ortiz and Halley Feiffer.
photo by Aubrey Reuben

"The very first idea for this show came from Bill Bragin, who ran Joe's Pub, where Stew and Heidi used to play. Bill said to Stew, 'Have you ever thought about doing a piece of theatre?' Stew said, 'Yeah, actually, I'd love to,' and then the process started. I joined on three months later up at Sundance where I was mentoring, and we took it from there."

Putting it together, he said, was a genuine joy. "Each of the collaborators — the actors, of course, but Stew and Heidi and, above all, Annie showed — an ability to work within an accessible populist medium to really retain the integrity of what they want to talk about."

And what Passing Strange wants to talk about — to create — was a kind of chameleon Candide, who shakes his roots and tries to transplant himself in foreign turf as someone he is not, fabricating a ghetto background to hide his middle-class upbringing in uptight L.A. ("Death Row with palm trees"). A young musician, he tries to find his voice, his music, ultimately himself, first in Amsterdam, then in Berlin — a stranger in a strange land, passing (as) strange.

Stew serves as musical tour-guide and narrator for this journey of self-awareness, toting a sizable amount of autobiographical baggage in the process. "In a way," said Eustis, "it's not so much an idea to tell the story of the African-American middle-class as it is his idea to tell the truth about his racial experience in America. His idea was — and he was actually correct — that it was a truth that was not being told. What I think is so remarkable about it is the way that you see his entire identity is, from the beginning, formed from crossing cultures. There is no such thing as a singular or cultural identity in America so, as unique as he is, all of us have formed our identities from this cross-current of different cultures."

Stew started brewing once the commission was in place. "I knew I wanted to write something different," he said, "a different perspective of the black world, of black America. I was tired of it always only being either The Huxtables on one end or lower working-class ghetto life. That's not where I'm from. I just wanted to tell my story."

This surrogate Stew who's center-stage is The Big Break that Daniel Breaker has been angling for. His two previous Broadway roles — in Well and, recently, Cymbeline — were bits by comparison, and he makes the most of his enlarged canvas with a star-making turn.

"I'm in awe of this role," he admitted. "It's such a fun part to dive into, and it's also a part I find utterly frightening. Basically, it's a coming-of-age story, and my character doesn't have a name other than Youth. He's the essence of Youth, I guess you could say — an idea — sorta 'In Everyman, you have an Everyboy.' We didn't want to give him a specific name because we wanted everybody to relate to what it is to be a teenager finding his way." It doesn't hurt, either, to have the real Stew on stage at the same time, he pointed out. "I'm having a damn good time. It's so much fun to work with Stew. You never know what he's going to do. It's always going to be different. I always try to break him up and make him laugh on stage. Wednesday matinees will be as much fun as opening night."

Of course, he conceded the opening's an awesome act to follow. "You could feel it as soon as you stepped on — before the show even started. When we heard the band come out and everybody went crazy, that's when we thought, 'Okay, we got an audience here.'"

No longer Broadway-bound, Breaker is altar-bound in April. His fiancee is Kate Whoriskey, who is directing Lynn Nottage's latest play, Ruined, when it tries out at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago this fall. "It's about a brothel in the democratic republic of The Congo," clarified Nottage, "and it's coming to Manhattan Theatre Club in January."

Blondie's Deborah Harry brought some real rock glam to the evening. "Stew is an old friend of mine," she said. "He had a band called The Negro Problem, and he toured with Blondie many years ago. He's a terrific guy, and he's just so talented." She had plenty of praise for Passing Strange — "very exciting, had a lot of great elements and really such a minimal production. Production values were very minimal, but just right. Had a beautiful story. The audience was really responsive. I hope that the producers have a huge success."

Other first-nighters: Cymbeline's Martha Plimpton, director Spike Lee (what's the Stalag 17 status, Spike?), Anne Meara, Cheryl James (Salt of Salt-n-Pepa), Tracee Ellis Ross of "Girlfriends" and Rhonda Ross of "Another World" (both of them stunners like Mama Diana), High Fidelity's Amanda Green, Jersey Boys' Marshall Brickman, Hairspray's Julie Halston, Taboo's Euan Morton (bracing for his Oak Room bow in March), Sweeney Todd's Manoel Felciano, LAByrinth co-head John Ortiz, Sherri Saum of "Rescue Me," Rosie Perez and Cry-Baby himself, James Snyder.

The complete contingent of female cast-members — Eisa Davis, deí Andre Aziza and Rebecca Naomi Jones — collided on arrival with Gerald Schoenfeld, chairman of The Shubert Organization, the show's top-billed backer, and this hard-to-set up timing touched off a flurry of paparazzi snap, crackle and pop. (Jerry's Girls, dontcha know.)

Schoenfeld was less forthcoming about the rumored head-hammering between old-guard producers and new-sound music-makers. "They are from a different discipline," was all he would say, and you could almost hear the soft drop of dot dot dot.

Co-composer Rodewald pooh-poohed the stories of disharmony between the two schools of Broadway thought. "Oh, I loved working with those producers," she insisted. "When Stew and I were talking in the offices with Liz and our director, I loved that all the references were old musicals. I mean, I didn't even want to talk about ours. I was so excited they were bringing up My Fair Lady and Hello, Dolly! It just blew me away that we were working with these people who have such history. I have such respect for them."

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Photo by Aubrey Reuben