This was always, and remains
a foreign land. And we are
undoubtedly, the slaves.
There is some music, that shd come on now.
With space for human drama, there shd be some memory
that leaves you smiling. That is, night and the way/
Her lovely hand, extended. The Star, the star, all night
We loved it
-Amiri Baraka, “Stellar Nilotic (29)”
As a theater lover, almost nothing’s better than watching a new company blossom, to grow into its powers and do something nobody else in town is doing. I had one of those epiphanous lightning bolts last night with Short North Stage. I was always rooting for them, and their Cabaret I saw at the beginning of the season had a lot of promise but fell just that little bit short of delivering.
I was always rooting for their take on Stew and Heidi Rodewald’s Passing Strange to be amazing and obviously any troupe in town with the balls to take it on gets my support and my ticket dollar. But having seen not only the Spike Lee filmed Broadway version but also the transcendent Balliwick version in Chicago with JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound as narrator and band and a phenomenal cast including Stephen Perkins, Osiris Khepera, and a spell-binding LaNisa Frederick… this had big shoes to fill to even grapple with that memory. And before I get into details, it does. If it doesn’t better the other versions it stands in my memory as 100% worthy and everyone I know who loves theater should go see this now, now, now.
As the board member who introduced the show commented, Passing Strange is an interesting companion piece to the first show of the season, Cabaret. Both are stories about a young American male artist trying to find their artistic voice in Berlin at a time when Berlin’s dirt poor, not incidentally a haven for artists and hangers-on, and about to crack wide open, whether it’s the end of the world or the light streaming through. But while the protagonist in Cabaret gets mired in sex and shock and horror, we see a deeper reckoning in Youth from Passing Strange and it doesn’t leave any doubt the protagonist does make something, something better than the juvenilia we see him, often hilariously, try to get past.
This show requires major versatility from every actor, four of the six person (besides the Narrator) cast play at least three roles who reflect and refract the differing milieus and Youth’s progression to understanding. Zoe Lathan and Rico Parker particularly stand out from one shift of setting to the next. Zoe Lathan’s Sherry and Desi in particular see something good in Youth before anyone else really does and her playing this realization and also the frustration that he’s not there yet and maybe he won’t ever be is heartbreaking. Her featured turn on “Come Down Now” is a time-stopping performance, a highlight in a whole show of highlights. Parker’s hilarious with impeccable comic timing but always shaded with enough pain that you feel like there’s a person there. Even as his characters are the person getting left behind or the person getting displaced by Youth’s innate selfishness masked as ambition or vice versa, they leave an impression; there’s a person here. Even if Youth doesn’t register the loss of Parker’s or Lathan’s characters, they’re given enough impact in the play and in the production that the audience sees the loss. Mia Angelique Fowler is a vision and a ball of incandescent energy, her voice ringing clear and sharp on the Amsterdam numbers.
Michelle Golden has maybe a thankless job as the Mother, appearing at the beginning to represent what the Youth needs to escape from and appearing in phone calls at the end when his stubbornness won’t let him come home and she won’t say why it’s so important. But it’s the most heart-wrenching part in the play and Golden plays it so beautifully it’s hard to imagine her being bettered. Everything not said shows up on her face, in the shrug of her shoulders.
Taylor Moss as Youth, the only character on stage at all times, gives a ferociously physical performance that I initially thought was a little too cartoony but won me over midway through the first act. It rang true to my experience of being that age, wearing every lust, idea, enthusiasm on your face and wondering why you have no mystery at all but trying to invent a mask, a back story, an identity. Anything the show needs at any moment, he’s up for the task and if he plays to the back row a little bit, well, I was in the back row. For a central character who’s being acted upon as much as he acts, Moss gives an indelible performance in outstanding voice and along with Fowler is the best dancer in the show.
This show doesn’t work if the Narrator’s bullshitting. A good friend of mine who’s done a lot of work with theaters in town said, “We’ve talked about doing it but we can’t picture a local Stew…” Well, Short North Stage found the perfect man for the job because Ron Jenkins is a damn star. I’d seen his vocal quartet, Vocal Impact, and I knew the name from his time with Chapmyn Spoken Word and Flow Theater, but I’d never seen any of his theatrical work and I was blown away. His voice is warm and supple and his take is interestingly balanced. It’s not the surging rage and physicality of JC Brooks but his knives are sharpened to a slightly finer point than Stew’s origination of the part. He feels so connected with the audience that the moments of breaking the fourth wall are surprising and fresh even if you see them coming.
Even more than any of the actors, the superstar here is the director, Mark Clayton Southers. An implant from Pittsburgh’s August Wilson Center, he imbues the show with the kind of joyous seriousness of the best of Wilson’s plays. Such a steady hand is evidenced through the entire production, at every moment every actor feels exactly where they should be even if it’s not where the audience was expecting – suddenly emerging stage right or arguing with the band in the pit or on the second level of Robert Kuhn’s astonishing set (his lighting’s also a wonder). The nuance, especially evident in the very subtle choreographic echoes where Youth and the Narrator’s movements are just similar enough to drive the point home, is a wonder.
Of course there’s a caveat – the sound problems I noticed in Cabaret are better but still not all the way fixed. Vocals get muddy and drowned out at times – more of a problem in this show because often the harmonies comment on the lead lines and vice versa. The amazing band music director P. Tim Valentine put together feels strangely quiet and subdued, the rock and roll surges so key to the show don’t have the same punch they should. Often the guitar work is completely drowned out unless it’s a specific tag where the keys drop out at the time (like the surf riff on “We Just Had Sex”). And with legendary Columbus noise/jazz man Larry Marotta on lead, I promise the guitars aren’t too quiet because of the musicians. The PA problems weren’t enough to ruin the show and they aren’t bad enough to stop me from recommending it but they’re annoying because everything thing else is so good.
Well done, Short North Stage. I can’t wait to see what’s next.