|Passing Strange at City Theater Company runs through December 21.
Photos by Joe del Tufo/Moonloop Photography.
Holly is a longtime reviewer of Delaware theater; in addition to Delaware Arts Info, she has contributed to The News Journal and Stage Magazine. She is the lead reporter for Technical.ly Delaware.
Passing Strange, the layered rock musical by Stew, is a Christmas show. At least tangentially. I'd never looked at it that way, but as it's City Theater Company's December production, I wondered if they were simply being alternative in a season when a lot of arts lovers need a break from the Christmas Carols and Nutcrackers.
After seeing it, it occurred to me how well it fits during this turbulent holiday season. It tackles race and revolution, but it all comes down to love.
Even viewed as a (tangentially) Christmas show, Passing Strange is about as far from traditional as possible. It's the story of a young African American man trying to figure himself out in the suburbs of Los Angeles in the 1970s, and, later, in Europe in the 1980s. It has an all-Black cast that includes a small ensemble that plays multiple characters with wildly different personalities, from members of the protagonist’s childhood Baptist church to members of his teenage punk rock band to his "found families" in Amsterdam and West Berlin.
Youth often found himself — quite by his own choices — part of white spaces, but the ensemble doesn't shift to white actors for those roles, a detail of the show established before the show hit off-Broadway. As such, it’s a story about Black experience that never centers on whiteness, even when Youth exists as the only Black person in a space.
Dominic Santos, a respected veteran of Delaware theater at this point, plays Youth from the age of 14 to his early 20s, and does a terrific job of developing the character on stage as he tries to find his identity. Youth feels out of place in Black spaces — a crush tells him he needs to be “more Black” (but not so much that he can’t follow a path to suburban comfort), while his choir leader shows him the misery of not being your real self.
Eventually Youth does act “more Black” — for Berlin radicals who fetishize oppression and lavish him with the attention he craves.
Meredith Bell, former lead singer for Palaceburn, hits the right emotional notes as the vivacious and long-suffering Mother; Chris Banker, last seen at CTC in Pub Plays, is almost simply part of the soundtrack for much of the show. As the tension in the story builds, so does the Narrator’s place in it.
This show requires an extremely tight ensemble, and this production has it in Jared Chichester, Dana Hoffman, Kyleen Shaw and Philip Anthony Wilson. A mix of newcomers to the Wilmington stage and familiar faces (Shaw was last seen at CTC in Lizzie), the casting couldn’t be more on point. Each plays three to four distinct roles, and each shine in all of them. Part of the fun — and this show is definitely fun, even while dealing with some heavy emotional subject matter — is waiting to see how the ensemble actors will change from arc to arc as Youth goes on his journey.
So, how is this story about a young, sometimes misguided man navigating a world he struggles to fit into a Christmas show? I won’t give too much away, but a pivotal moment in the story that centering on family and the holidays is the catalyst to the emotional climax about love, loss and forgiveness. But don’t let that deter you if you’re avoiding traditional holiday shows. This is one not to miss.