Even through a sound system in need of upgrade, Mixed Blood Theatre’s “Passing Strange” is an engrossing thrill.
The driving, autobiographical coming-of-age musical captures the life and times of the local artist and musician known as Stew, who wrote the show’s book and collaborated with composer Heidi Rodewald on the music.
Thomas W. Jones II’s joke-filled production, which opened Friday in Minneapolis, boasts a trio of captivating performances by Anthony Manough, who plays the guitar-thumping Narrator; Nathan Barlow, who plays Youth; and vocal powerhouse Jamecia Bennett as Mother.
This trio carries the show on sheer charisma and talent. Manough has the raw power of an R&B superstar, something like Isaac Hayes or Marvin Gaye, combined with a touch of the Violent Femmes. Barlow is confident and commanding as both actor and singer, going from one strong, well-considered number to another. And Bennett has moments when she belts, but is often gorgeously quiet here.
In other words, the performances, like the show itself, often break expectations in “Passing Strange,” which is nearly sung-through. The show is a Brechtian musical about a black Youth growing up with a single Mother in late 1970s Los Angeles. He leaves home to find himself, not going to Africa, as is the fashion among conscious black people, but to Europe.
Specifically, Youth goes to Amsterdam, where he is treated not like someone who carries the nation’s pathologies, but an individual. On his first night there, he is offered keys to an apartment by a beautiful woman. He later leaves the drug cafes and window-displayed sex workers of Amsterdam for Berlin, where he falls in with an avant-garde set and lives in a communal house.
In all of it, the young man begins to discover, almost like an outsider, what it means to be an American, an artist and a black man. He alternately uses and sheds a legacy of pain and music, spirituality and identity as he begins to find himself. The cost, however, is high, as it takes him away from his mother.
The production ends in a wonderful place but there are moments, especially early on, when director Jones goes for laughs at the expense of honoring the culture. Specifically, he overplays some church elements when subtlety would work just as well.
On the other hand, the gusto with which he staged the show serves the Berlin riot scene well.
The production, which has music direction by Jason Hansen and a band that includes Zach Schmidt and bassist Jay Young, is set on three raised playing areas created by set designer Joseph Stanley. The cast is rounded out by Brittany Bradford, who is more gifted as an actor than a singer (the sound system didn’t help her early on); Lipica Shah, who is back after playing in Aditi Kapil’s Hindu Gods trilogy; and Meghan Kreidler and LeRoi James. They support a seeker’s story that’s told with unbridled energy and is well worth hearing again.