‘Hey, what’s up,” says Stew to the crowd in front of him. “You guys all right?” A stocky guy with a goatee, Stew wears a dark suit, red shirt, and sneakers. He also wears an electric guitar, which he strums as he sings that he and his band have played 10,000 gigs on the road. “And oh, by the way, can we crash on your couch tonight? Well, all right.”
Stew has plenty to do in Passing Strange, his new musical at the Public: He’s the front man, narrator, librettist, lyricist, and (with bass player Heidi Rodewald) co-composer. But as those laid-back opening moments suggest, he doesn’t kill himself doing it. As he tells the story of a young African-American’s trip to self-discovery, which begins in middle-class L.A. in the seventies and swings through European capitals, the vibe stays offhand. He enjoys a certain kind of self-deflating humor, setting us up for a major moment that turns out to be not so major, like when he announces that the young guy known only as the Youth (the funny, charismatic Daniel Breaker), who has just arrived in Amsterdam, is about to have “a single moment of utter crystalline clarity, for the Real was to be revealed right here within this very venue!” Whereupon Breaker looks up and sings, “There’s hashish on the menu!”
Though the casualness makes things drag now and then—despite some Big Thoughts about art and life and, yes, “the Real,” you never feel there’s much at stake—Stew and director Annie Dorsen convey the easy pleasure of a show that doesn’t feel the need to explain itself. It plays out on the thrust stage of the Public’s Anspacher Theater (Stew at center stage with the actors, four band members in mini-pits along each side), but you feel it would be just as comfortable downstairs at Joe’s Pub, where it was workshopped. They play straight-ahead rock when it suits them, or traipse off into some other style, like Baptist revival (when the Youth discovers music in church) or punk (when he starts a garage band) or psychedelia (in Amsterdam, obviously) or even Jon Brion–ish piano soundscaping (pretty much anytime).
Put these songs in the hands of a crack cast playing multiple roles, in front of a dazzling backdrop—a wall of multicolored lights by set designer David Korins and genius lighting designer Kevin Adams (of Spring Awakening) that must be how the inside of a pinball machine looks to a flea—and this “little rock show” begins to feel like a mildly big deal. It’s yet another sign that smart theater composers are edging out of the sonic museum and into the world of 21st-century pop, discovering the joys of bright lights and loud music.
Or should I say rediscovering? At City Center, Encores! has just wrapped a season celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the Ziegfeld Follies, those famous revues of hit songs, elaborately costumed showgirls, and some of the all-time great double entendres. After an excellent revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s Follies, and a mildly diverting take on Irving Berlin and Moss Hart’s Face the Music, the year concluded last week with Stairway to Paradise, a revue built from old revues, which loses no points with me for being so meta.
Jack Viertel rummaged around Broadway’s song trunk and found an intriguing array of tunes, from the sublime (“Manhattan,” “Memories of You”) to the flat-out racist (“Get Yourself a Geisha”). Ruthie Henshall tried too hard, and the capacious talent of Capathia Jenkins was ill used, but even so, the crowds couldn’t get enough. Some wonderful performances helped, especially from Kristin Chenoweth, the hilarious Christopher Fitzgerald, and tap whiz kid Kendrick Jones. Far more appealing—for me, anyway—was Viertel’s decision to line up the songs more or less chronologically, turning the show into an irreverent history of early-twentieth-century life. Two wars and a depression, the birth of ragtime and jazz, the struggle to fold millions of immigrants into the life of New York: At every turn, composers like Irving Berlin found clever or moving or obnoxious ways to set the upheaval of their audiences to song, then serve it back to them with such charm that the responses have outlived the stimuli.
Decades after television killed stage revues, do the city’s musicals have anything like their jangling energy, irrepressible variety, and immediate links to a crowd? A year ago I’d have murmured yes, then slunk away before you could ask for proof. Now half my friends seem obsessed with the Spring Awakening CD, In the Heights is using salsa and hip-hop to capture 181st Street even as it gentrifies beyond recognition, and Passing Strange has eclecticism to spare. All three have made the city’s theaters a much livelier place, and (I can only hope) foretell the next rediscovery: Bring on the Follies girls.
Book and lyrics by Stew. Music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald. The Public Theater. Through June 3.