PLAYBILL VIP SPOTLIGHT: New York City High School Is First to Stage Rock Musical Passing Strange

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08 May 2014

Cover art
Cover art

Passing Strange, the Tony Award-nominated 2008 musical about a young black bohemian who leaves home in search of himself, is being staged in a U.S. high school for the first time since its Broadway run. Performances begin May 8.

The Beacon School, which in recent years presented the NYC high school premieres of Rent and Spring Awakening, as well as an ambitious mounting of The Light in the Piazza, is taking on the musical by Stew and Heidi Rodewald that incorporates autobiographical elements of Stew's life. The musical also delves into subjects not typically addressed in standard spring musical fare, among them: religion, drugs and sexual discovery. 

Passing Strange has been available for licensing from Dramatists Play Service, Inc. for the past several years, mainly finding life at smaller, more adventurous regional theatres and independent theatres across the U.S.

While it is not unlike Spring Awakening, a contemporary rock musical that delves into psychological and sexual issues that resonate with young people today, Passing Strange has not generated the kind of zeitgeist that keeps it on the lips and in the iPods of young theatre lovers.

By nature of its abstract construction – the original cast was an amalgam of rock musicians and actors led by writer Stew, who rarely put his guitar down for the duration of the musical – Passing Strange is in some ways, an artistic head-scratcher.

"I took students to see it when it debuted at the Public Theater and again when it moved to Broadway," said teacher Jo Ann Cimato, who runs the Beacon Drama Art Theatre program and is in charge of selecting and directing the productions at the school each year. "I hate the idea that theatre is for a specific group of people," she said, reflecting on the appeal of non-traditional works like Passing Strange. "I fiercely believe that theatre is for everyone, and I choose material that brings people together, asks hard questions, and offers puzzles for my students and I to solve."

Those elements made Passing Strange an ideal project to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the B'DAT program at the school. Cimato and musical director Lilli Wosk describe the material as something that feels "historically and culturally relevant," as well as "absolutely accessible" for the student body.

Read the Beacon School's Passing Strange Playbill VIP here.

The productions B'DAT produces span a dauntingly wide array of subjects and styles - the students went from rocking out in Spring Awakening to learning near operatic legit vocal styles for Piazza in less than a year – but Cimato insisted, "My job is to honor the play and my students. I don't pick productions because they're challenging, I pick them because they resonate with our community at Beacon. I could produce more 'traditional' material, but I also would then struggle to recruit actors, never mind an audience."

Heidi Rodwald and Stew

Over the past year students at Beacon have developed a near obsessive passion for the musical and Stew's band The Negro Problem, as well as the Spike Lee documentary film that captured the musical late in its Broadway run.

"They see so much of themselves in the Youth’s journey, so the material itself is like a talisman for them. They are looking for 'the real,' seeking their parents' support of their creative ambitions, trying to find themselves in a maze of mistakes. I think they trust that if Stew could get through it okay – they might, too."

The school production, which expands the cast past its original core of seven actors, incorporates students of various cultural backgrounds and ethnicities. With the exception of several on-stage musicians, the original Broadway production of Passing Strange featured an all-black cast. For Cimato, reframing the story through a multi-cultural lense is what the journey central to Passing Strange is all about.

"There are some theatrical elements that read quite differently with mixed-race casting," Cimato observed. "There is also something to be said for the diversity in the Beacon population. We're all passing for something, and that is part of the magic of the show and the questions it raises."

The cast heralds from various backgrounds including Italian, Brazilian, African-American, Caucasian and Filipino. Cimato noted that the casting choices purposefully play with the audience's preconceived notions of the physical manifestation of race and cultural heritage.

"Who has a white grandparent? Who's a quarter Filipino? Who's passing for white? Who's passing for black? Passing Strange taught us all a lot about learning and owning your history and 'wearing it like a gown,'" Cimato explained. "We wanted the audience to be part of that discussion so we cast an ensemble of storytellers that came in as many different packages as we could find."

B'DAT's production has the blessing of Stew and Rodewald, who attended a recent rehearsal and participated in a Q&A session with the cast. The writers and students spoke about which the characters and events in the play were true, as well as the cultural philosophy of Berlin, the punk rock scene there and how writing songs turns into writing plays – in addition to the shortcomings of the SAT as an accurate gauge of a high schooler's intelligence.

The creators didn't give notes on the production or performance, but Stew did offer words that resonated with the cast. "I don’t think I’ve ever met someone that ever said, 'Gee I wish I stopped making art!,'" he told them. "That hit them like a train," Cimato recalled. "A few of the students actually went home, sat their parents down, and started seriously talking about going to art school."

The B'DAT cast of Passing Strange features Dazay Burnett, Justin Armstrong, Merlixse Ventura, Shamaar Samuel, Nico Esquilin, Willa Grace Moore, Sarah Kristen Vasquez, Christopher Gambino, Julia Gilban Cohen, Caleb Featherstone, Lilly Capstick, Jack Strosser, Lexis Harris, Azali Cyril, Khadeedja Muheto, Molly Dore, Sonia Bloom, Luke Branam-Wenger, Roberto Colon, Shahob Newman, Nkosi Wyands, Khadeedja Muheto, Shamaar Samuel, Nico Esquilin, Molly Dore, Michaella Esteves and Christopher Gambino.

Passing Strange will be staged May 8, 9 and 10; as well as May 15, 16 and 17. Admission is $10 to the general public, $8 for students. For ticket reservations and availability, contact the B'DAT Box Office at bdat@beaconschool.org. The Beacon School is located at 227 West 61st Street.