For those (like this critic) who missed singer-songwriter Stew’s Tony-winning, autobiographical rock musical during its runs at the Public Theater and on Broadway, Spike Lee’s concert-film version—taped during the show’s final two performances at the Belasco Theater, and once more before Lee’s army of craning, swooshing cameras—provides a richly satisfying record.
Appearing center-stage, flanked by a trio of backing musicians, the regal Stew (né Mark Stewart) serves as narrator and interlocutor for this Proustian journey into the irretrievable past, centered on a restless African-American teen (known only as “Youth” and played superbly by Daniel Breaker) coming of age in South Central L.A. in the 1970s. Chafing at the clichés of urban black identity and desperate for “real” experience, Stew’s musically minded alter ego sets sail for Europe, where he gets a crash course in a whole new set of clichés, discovering sex and drugs in Amsterdam and joining a radical collective in Berlin. At every step, the “real” rips through the Youth’s—to say nothing of Rent‘s—idealized notions of la vie bohème, and our hero finds himself faced with the conundrum of Sondheim’s Georges Seurat: to make love or art.
Nimbly directed by Lee and propelled by a rousing cabaret rock score (by Stew and Heidi Rodewald) that cleanses the palate of contemporary Broadway’s prevailing jukebox drivel, Passing Strange conjures a rare kind of theatrical magic with its emotionally raw, frequently euphoric portrait of the artist as a young man.