Ninety-seven percent of the musical "Passing Strange" at the Studio Theatre is fast, fun, colorful and imaginative. Even its introspective moments are lively. Only near the end does "Passing Strange" turn serious and even then, its seriousness is part of its mission.
The story of a Youth (Aaron Reeder) drifting through life in South Central Los Angeles, "Passing Strange" features book and lyrics by Stew, and music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald. There is a Narrator (the powerful Jahi A. Kearse) who sings and plays the guitar throughout, accompanied by a dynamic four-piece band, led by Christopher Youstra.
It becomes clear that the Narrator is outlining his life in telling the story of the meandering Youth, who finally finds direction when his mother (the incomparable Deidra LaWan Starnes) convinces him to accompany her to church, where he joins the choir.
If you go 'Passing Strange' Where: The Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW When: 8:30 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Sunday; through Aug. 8 Info: $38 to $43; 202-332-3300; studiotheatre.org
Much of this story is told through the presence of an extremely versatile 12-member ensemble. Although the coming-of-age story is not new, the episodic structure of this piece, the proficiency of the ensemble and the humor built into Stew's book give it fresh appeal. In the church there are a number of sensational call-and-response numbers and dance routines ("Baptist Fashion Show," "Church Blues Revelation" and "Music is the Freight Train in Which God Travels") choreographed by Helanius Wilkins. Sean Lynch is amusing as Mr. Franklin, as is Shaunte Tabb as Sherry, a "bad kid." Jessica Dukes is superb as Edwina, a teenage goddess.
But soon the appeal of L.A. life wanes, and the Youth determines to head off to Amsterdam, Netherlands, to see the "real world." Some sexy stewardesses/go-go girls (Tabb, Courtney Alexandria, Lulu Fall and Natalie Tucker) welcome the Youth, as do the offbeat people who want to integrate him into their society.
There's Renata, an abstract artist (Deborah Lubega), Christophe, a "philosophy professor and part-time sex worker" (Baye StraightForward Harrell) and Joop, a "body liberationist" (Juan Carlos Sanchez). It is Marianna, a neo-hippy (Dukes), who really wants to change the Youth's life. Singing the sultry "Keys," Marianna makes it clear that the Youth is welcome in her existence.
But Amsterdam's sex and drugs don't fulfill the restless Youth, who soon takes off for Berlin, where he again meets unconventional characters: Hugo, a "bitter militant music critic and part-time bartender" (Eric Williams), Sudabey, a "postmodern pornographer and social critic" (Dukes), Mr. Venus "an avant-garde performance artist" (Lynch) and Desi, "founder of the Nowhaus" (Lubega).
With this whole new "family," the Youth learns that "ideas are dependable ... emotions are expendable" and from Desi he learns that "only love is real." But when Christmas rolls around and even avant-garde artists head home for family celebrations, the Youth is hurt and lonely and begins to think of home.
Set designer Giorgos Tsappas creates an effective backdrop of moveable panels that alter with each setting: in Los Angeles, projection designer Erik Trester makes palm trees visible through them; in Amsterdam, they become the basis for a huge red window.
Costume designer Kristopher Castle comes up with intriguing details for all three settings, particularly Berlin, where everything is black and leather except for Desi's hot-pink Mohican hairdo and long, hot-pink gloves.
Director Keith Alan Baker keeps the energy of "Passing Strange" cranked up to the max until the end, when the tone of the musical becomes gentle and moving. With its sophisticated book, its clever satire, its heart-felt music, the impressive performances of the Studio Theatre cast, and the contrast between the high-powered beginning and the affecting ending, "Passing Strange" is a novel delight.