Porchlight puts Passing Strange in the spotlight

For Chicago-based director Donterrio, the late-00s musical Passing Strange represents a road map for how an artist—no matter the medium in which they create—can live their life. 

The show’s story of a Black musician’s coming-of-age depicts “what happens once you have this crazy dream as a teenager to be an artist, and this is how you end up if you don’t cede to the message,” he explained. 

Porchlight Revisits: Passing Strange
Wed 5/18, 7 PM and Thu 5/19, 1:30 and 7 PM; Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn, porchlightmusictheatre.org, $49.

Donterrio has been at the helm of Porchlight Music Theatre’s new production of Passing Strange, which will be presented this Wednesday and Thursday as part of the company’s ongoing Porchlight Revisits series, highlighting musicals that have fallen off the theater community’s radar.

Opening with much acclaim on Broadway in February 2008, Passing Strange was created by musician and playwright Stew. (Heidi Rodewald collaborated on the music.) The show depicts the life of a young musician—simply referred to as “the youth”—and his struggles with love and work as he searches to find his voice as an artist. Songs bridging numerous musical genres are interspersed throughout. The narrator, identified as “Stew,” was originally portrayed by Stew.  

The show was essentially a primer on how to be “a healthy, well-rounded artist,” according to Donterrio. “It says, ‘Watch out for these things. Spend time with your family. Be careful of the people who don’t love you back.’”

Passing Strange ran on Broadway through July 2008 and was nominated for seven Tony Awards, winning one for Best Book, and also received three Drama Desk Awards. But even after Spike Lee filmed two performances for a 2009 movie, Passing Strange has only rarely been performed in subsequent years. (The now-defunct Bailiwick Chicago—not to be confused with the also-defunct Bailiwick Repertory—produced a critically acclaimed staging of the show in 2011, directed by Lili-Anne Brown.)

Porchlight artistic director Michael Weber suspects the show’s original marketers had a difficult time selling the show since it “was a live, personal piece written for Stew to perform himself.” The Broadway milieu, he added, “is more tourist-based and more international-based, and they want to see things with the biggest-name actors or the biggest-titled shows like Wicked or Phantom of the Opera.”

Passing Strange, Weber noted, is a “thinking person’s show—it is very nuanced in terms of the vision it is trying to expound upon, and I think that made it a little difficult for people to put in a nutshell what the experience is. . . . I think that, had they had a star that everybody knew, it would have had a different life, but on the other hand, it would have lost everything it had [with] Stew there on stage.”

Donterrio, for his part, embraced the challenge of Passing Strange being so intrinsically interwoven with the personality and memories from its creator.

“If people look at the core of the story that’s there, it’s the story of any artist,” he explained. “With our production, we’re kind of able to dig into that. I think we’ll be able to open up to a new audience and we don’t have to rely on Stew’s being and his physicality, [and] the way he sang the material. We can just do the material, be honest to it, and it can kind of be like Pippin, where it can be any performer.” 

Donterrio further described the cast as “a roomful of multifaceted artists. The actors are [regularly] directors and costume designers, for example. They do other things as well, so it’s been a really fun creative process. It will be a really fun show to experience.”  

The Porchlight Revisits series has been featuring stagings of little-seen musicals since 2018. According to Weber, Passing Strange demonstrates that Porchlight is programming not just a retrospective of forgotten vintage shows but important and compelling shows that did not have a chance to connect with audiences.

Passing Strange is definitely one of the newest shows we’ve done in the Porchlight Revisited series,” Weber said. “[But] it will always be a mix of the lesser seen shows that we think deserve a second look.”

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