Passing Strange – review:

“With its electrifying music and stellar performances Passing Strange is a memorable theatrical experience”
Young Vic Theatre
Review by: Mark Arbouine
afridiziak ratings
Published: Thursday 23rd May 2024, 1:30pm

10. The Company of Passing Strange at Young Vic. (c) Marc Brenner
10. The Company of Passing Strange at Young Vic. (c) Marc Brenner

The Young Vic’s European premiere of the Tony Award winning musical Passing Strange is a pulsating rock adventure that takes the audience on an exhilarating journey of self-discovery and cultural exploration. It follows a young black musician, simply called “Youth” (powerfully portrayed by Keenan Munn-Francis), on a journey of self-discovery that takes him from his middle-class Los Angeles upbringing in the 1970s to the punk scene of 1980s Amsterdam and Berlin.

However, this isn’t a typical stage musical, in fact, it could be described as being a bit like a rock concert with a story weaved around its edges to give it a structure and to link the songs together. The set design by Ben Stones fits this description. The majority of the stage is taken up by an area primarily to accommodate a four piece band whose members are an integral part of the production and are situated prominently in view throughout the show.

On occasions they join in the singing, deliver the odd line of dialogue and generally interact with the cast. Around the edge of stage is a raised area and a large part of the story is played out there. Taking centre stage, like a concert’s headliner, is Giles Terera, who is the play’s narrator and adult version of Youth, and he is everything you could want in a lead performer in how he holds the play together just as surely as he holds the audience in the palm of his hand. He has a commanding stage presence, his singing is sublime, has superb comic timing and true star quality. However, this is far from being a one person show and every member of the cast is excellent.

This is a coming-of-age story beginning with our protagonist Youth being encouraged to go to church by his mother (Rachel Adedeji) and while there he discovers his love for gospel music but also begins to question who he really is when he’s told he’s not black enough. This leads to him explore different types of music, art and self-expression taking his from Los Angeles to Amsterdam and Berlin.

Director Liesl Tommy masterfully orchestrates the chaos and tenderness of Youth’s experiences during his journey of discovery. One moment we are in the relatively sedate surroundings of suburban America and then transported to a smoky Amsterdam club, throbbing with the energy of rebellion, before being taken to the avant-garde Berlin cabaret scene. Everything is brought to life by a phenomenal cast. Munn-Francis embodies the angst and innocence of a young man searching for his place in the world. His soulful vocals soar when he sings the emotional ballads and buzz with raw energy during the rock anthems.

A pulsating rock adventure that takes the audience on an exhilarating journey of self-discovery and cultural exploration”.

The rest of the cast (David Albury, Nadia Violet Johnson, Renée Lamb and Caleb Roberts) is equally impressive, transforming seamlessly between characters, adding fervour and moments of comedy to the narrative. Their singing, spirited choreography and sparkling dialogue is a constant source of energy in the show.

Passing Strange is not without flaws: its plot is a little thin and some of the scenes would benefit from a bit of trimming but I can overlook all that because the songs, the performances and the general energy of the production more than compensate for its shortcomings. The show’s creators, Stew Stewart and Heidi Rodewald, have skilfully blended various musical styles to reflect the diverse experiences of Youth’s journey. The audience is treated to a rich mix of gospel, soul, blues, the rebellious energy of punk rock and the driving rhythms of Berlin techno, all skilfully integrated with a theatrical touch.

Passing Strange tackles themes of race, identity the attraction of rebellion but ultimately offers a message of hope. Through his experiences, Youth learns the importance of finding his own voice, embracing his heritage, and of forging his own path. With its electrifying music and stellar performances Passing Strange is a memorable theatrical experience.

Need to know: Passing Strange plays at the Young Vic theatre until 6 July 2024 | See listing.