Photo: Marc Brenner

If you’re not familiar with the musical Passing Strange… well, we don’t blame you. The original Broadway run was way back in 2008 – it was nominated for several Tony Awards, picking up Best Book of a Musical, and since then it’s not really been performed, aside from a few regional productions in the USA. Until now, that is, as the show makes its European debut at The Young Vic theatre in London.

Written by the musician Stew – with additional music and orchestrations by Heidi Rodewald – Passing Strange has a narrator (Giles Terera) who tells the story of Youth (Keenan Munn-Francis), a young middle-class African American growing up in a churchgoing family in Los Angeles. We are soon introduced to his mother (Rachel Adedeji) who encourages him to attend church more often, questioning his life choices.

It is, essentially, a coming-of-age story: we see Youth rebel against his relatively comfortable life and set off in pursuit of something more meaningful. Over the ensuing three hours we follow his journey to Berlin, via Amsterdam, then eventually back home – we gain insights into the people he encounters along the way, the experiences he has and the relationships he forges.

It’s not a traditional musical: it feels a lot more like a rock concert with some narrative woven in, as opposed to a staged theatrical show with songs. The wedge-shaped stage is set up like a rehearsal room, amplifiers and furniture all around, with the musicians prominently positioned throughout and occasionally interacting with the characters. Giles Terera is a great showman and really delivers – he’s a captivating frontman, an excellent singer and an extremely proficient guitarist.

Passing Strange has a lot of good ideas, but they don’t always gel. There are many individually-good sketches – we particularly enjoyed the song ‘We Just Had Sex’, which sees Youth enjoying the liberal lifestyle that Amsterdam has to offer. Another standout moment is a pastiche of a French arthouse cinema sketch – it’s very silly and rather amusing.

Unfortunately it feels more like a collection of ideas – some of which are good, some of which are less so – than a coherent show. It also feels as though it overstays its welcome a little: it’s nearly three hours long, and most of act one concerns itself with Youth’s dissatisfaction with his life at home. The show only really starts to get interesting when he ups sticks and hops on a flight to Amsterdam, but it takes us the best part of an hour to get there. With some edits we feel like there’s a solid musical in here, but as it stands, we’d say Passing Strange has potential, but it’s not quite fully realised yet.

GAY TIMES gives Passing Strange – 3/5

More information can be found here.