Hairstyles are a quick way to get a read for the age of an audience. “The Zoo Story” at Victory Gardens late last year boasted mostly grayed combovers; “God of Carnage” at the Goodman had shoulder-length cuts and shaved necklines; even “Sex with Strangers” was mostly a salt-and-pepper type of crowd. But at Monday’s opening night of Passing Strange, the 2008 Tony-Award winning rock musical-memoir conceived by musician Stew, the audience was filled with locks of a different color: died porcupine perms and spiked, jet-black up-dos. This was a young crowd.
Youth, rather appropriately, is also the name of the protagonist of Passing Strange; the Black teenage musician, raised in Los Angeles, struggles to find his creative voice and fears becoming too comfortable artistically. So the young artist trips – geographically and psychedelically – from Amsterdam to Berlin, from weed to speed. Watching over Youth’s juvenile delinquencies is the Narrator, peering down like an omniscient father, supplying exposition and exposing cracks (both logical and wise) in the boy’s life. Played on Broadway by Stew, the Narrator here is J.C. Brooks, lead singer of Chicago-based post-punk soul band The Uptown Sound, who energetically supplies all the show’s sound from upstage.
Passing Strange was a critical and commercial success on Broadway, and its Midwest reincarnation by Bailiwick Chicago demonstrates just how universal this story of a young artist is. In short, the dish works without Stew. Brooks is a commanding yet tender narrator; his voice, warm like a wool blanket, channels the pain and longing of an older, wiser artist. Despite his impeccable performance, though, he looks young for the role. A shiny, wide-shouldered black blazer ages him slightly, but weathered nostalgia does not come with only a costume. A younger Narrator does allow Brooks to be more actively engaged with the narrative than Stew was on Broadway. Perched on a stool with a wireless mic rather than cut off by a desk and micstand, Brook’s Narrator intervenes in the story, sitting on the set and occupying the same space as his younger self. He speaks swiftly and carries a wireless stick.
The show is smart, dealing with issues of class, race, gender, sexuality, art, reality, identity, and all their messy and magical intersections. Osiris Khepera stands out amongst the ensemble, embodying shameless commitment and raising all these themes in a speech as the son of a preacher man that that reaches everyone. Beneath these intellectual themes, though, smashed PBR cans and Heinekens remind us this is a rock show. The director’s note quotes Shakespeare, while the playbill is shaped like an album track list. Through its own shifting identities, Passing Strange emerges as a complicated, emotional, and entertaining work of art. Whether it is a rock concert passing as a musical or a musical passing as a rock concert is still up for debate, but both performance forms are challenged though this blurring of the lines, like a streak of red tearing through heaven-pointed, spiked black hair.