'Passing Strange' at the Wilma: Updated, rocking tale of Youth's quest for identity

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The company of “Passing Strange,” directed by Tea Alagić, through Feb. 18 at The Wilma Theater.

We have seen versions of this tale many times before: the self-glorifying, distinctly unheroic artist-hero questing for his identity through changes of scene, sexual encounters that stop short of love, and the supposedly redemptive act of creation.

The twist in Stew and Heidi Rodewald’s Passing Strange, developed in collaboration with Annie Dorsen, is the frame. The story is related by the Narrator, a grown-up version of the misguided Youth, with a distinct sense of irony and self-criticism – and a kinetic, eclectic score that ranges from gospel to punk rock.

On Broadway, a decade ago, the singer-songwriter Stew (who wrote the book and lyrics and co-composed the score with Rodewald) played the autobiographical Narrator. He attended Wednesday’s electric opening-night performance at the Wilma Theater, where the charismatic Kris Coleman ably slipped into the Narrator’s part. (The theater is presenting this revival in association with Evamere Entertainment.)

As the solipsistic African American Youth who leaves South Central Los Angeles in the 1980s for the pleasures of Amsterdam and Berlin, Jamar Williams gives a fully committed, physically demanding performance edged with satire. Completing the trio of leads is the radiant Kimberly S. Fairbanks as Mother, whose love Youth discounts at his peril.

Under the high-energy direction of Tea Alagić and music direction of Amanda Morton, the remaining four actors each portray three characters, one in each city, with precision and (deliberately exaggerated) style. Three – Taysha Marie Canales, Lindsay Smiling, and Anthony Martinez-Briggs – are members of the Wilma’s homegrown HotHouse Company. There’s also an onstage four-piece band that, like the Narrator, occasionally interacts with the characters.

The show’s set, by Scott Pask, is essentially a black concert stage, augmented by Thom Weaver’s alternately mysterious, psychedelic, and stark lighting and Christopher Ash and Tal Yarden’s projections. The engaging choreography is by Constantine Baecher, the punk-influenced costumes by Vasilija Zivanic, and the sound design by Nick Kourtides.

One of the show’s points of interest is its interrogation of blackness. Stew’s Tony Award-winning book has Mother speaking in black dialect when she’s scolding her son – then abruptly, comically, switching to softer middle-class cadences. Among his politically radical Berlin friends, Youth poses as a street-smart ghetto dweller from the projects – a black man passing as a stereotypical black man, an inauthentic means of claiming authenticity.

Stew has some pronounced feelings about the role-playing required of blacks – by whites and by one another. In one comic riff, a romantic prospect from Youth’s L.A. Baptist church lectures him on how to be just black enough to woo her – but not too black to miss out on the education and corporate success necessary to keep her. In Europe, by contrast, Youth finds the freedom to do (more) drugs, have orgiastic sex, and fully embrace his pop-music artistic dreams.

Near the show’s end, Youth declares: “Life is a mistake that only art can correct.”  Maybe – but that’s just the half of it. Another moral of Passing Strange is akin to that of The Wizard of Oz: There’s no place like home.

Theater

Passing Strange

    • Through Feb. 18 at the Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St. Tickets: $30-$45. Information: 215-546-7824, wilmatheater.org.