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February 29, 2008

TT: "You kinda act too white"

In today's Wall Street Journal drama column I review two New York musicals, Passing Strange on Broadway and Adding Machine off Broadway, plus the last of the six shows I recently saw in California, Wishful Drinking. Here's a sample.

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Passing%2BStrange.jpgStew, a 46-year-old singer-songwriter from California with no stage experience, has brought a semi-autobiographical show to Broadway that bears no resemblance to your standard-issue faux-pop musical. In fact, "Passing Strange," which comes to Broadway from the Berkeley Repertory Theatre by way of New York's Public Theater, is less like a book show than a rock concert with interpolated skits, and it's so rough-hewn in spots as to border on the naïve. It's also the freshest musical in town, in part because Stew (whose real-life name is Mark Stewart) and his songwriting collaborator, Heidi Rodewald, are either ignorant of the conventions of musical comedy or don't care about them. Most likely they're more knowing than they let on, but it doesn't matter: "Passing Strange" is the most original Broadway musical since "The Light in the Piazza," and my guess is that it is headed for a long, profitable and influential run.

The best thing about "Passing Strange" is the book, which shows us a side of black life in America that rarely gets talked about, much less sung about. The show's nameless hero (well played by Daniel Breaker) is a PBS-watching, guitar-strumming Los Angeles kid who knows nothing of street life and prefers punk rock to soul. Longing to escape the philistinism of his suburban life, he hops a plane to Europe, flings himself into the bohemian scene, and becomes a performance artist who plays the race card in order to wow his leftist friends ("Yeah, Mr. May 68: do you know what it's like to be the object of oppression living under police occupation in the ghetto?"). Not only does Stew skewer his youthful artiness with a self-mockery that makes the just-be-yourself-man earnestness of the last scene easier to stomach, but he is forthright about the pressure that the black community brings to bear on middle-class blacks who refuse to conform to its own racial clichés...

The only thing that "Adding Machine" has in common with "Passing Strange" is that it isn't a conventional musical. This Chicago-to-Off-Broadway transfer, adapted by Jason Loewith and Joshua Schmidt from the 1923 play, takes Elmer Rice's once-iconic, now-forgotten story of a beaten-down bookkeeper who hates his wife and murders his boss and turns it into a one-act techno-minimalist opera of near-arrogant sophistication. Would that Mr. Schmidt's score were as memorable as it is slick, but the small-scale production, directed with awesome self-assurance by David Cromer, is so effective that you almost forget how forgettable the music is....

Addiction, mental illness, movie-star parents, bad marriages, really bad hair...Carrie Fisher, right? You got it: Princess Leia has recycled her nightmarish life yet again, this time putting it onstage in the form of an exceedingly clever one-woman show called "Wishful Drinking." Berkeley Rep, which brought "Passing Strange" into the world a year and a half ago, is now giving the hapless daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher an opportunity to be drop-dead funny about a string of personal crises so horrific that the only alternative to laughing at them is slashing your wrists in sympathy...

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Read the whole thing here.

Posted February 29, 2008 12:00 AM

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