‘Passing Strange’ at SLAC an Ensemble-Based Rock Show You Can’t Miss


The cast of “Passing Stranger” (Courtesy Todd Collins Photography)

By Hannah Keating, Arts Editor


Salt Lake Acting Company is no stranger to introducing Utah audiences to shows and “Passing Strange” is no exception. Their production and Utah premiere of the 2008 Broadway-musical meets rock-concert by Stew and Heidi Rodewald is a boisterous and transcendent musical tribute to finding yourself.

Staging the Show

The protagonist of “Passing Strange” is an African American musician growing up in Los Angeles referred to as “Youth.” After discovering music — and marijuana — in the church choir, he embarks on a journey of self-discovery in Europe, crashing on couches and floating through communities of free-spirited artists. Carleton Bluford as Youth is as charming as he is convincing on a journey to “find the real.” His performance is supported by a tight-knit ensemble of Latoya Cameron, Brian Kinnard, Kandyce Marie and Jamal A. Shuriah taking on various roles in the Youth’s life. Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin appears as Youth’s mother, and the show is lead by Lee Palmer as a wall-breaking narrator representing Stew himself.

“Passing Strange” is primarily a sung-through show — one review of the 2008 production called it “a rock concert with a story to tell” — which makes the collaboration of actors and musicians in the show a highlight. Led by music director Alex Marshall, a four-person band leads the company through electric and energetic songs, engaging with them onstage.

Energetic Performance

Visually, “Passing Strange” is impressive. For a show with many locales, set designer Halee Rasmussen worked her magic designing convertible platforms and tucking multi-purpose blocks in every nook and cranny. Lighting and costume help differentiate the European environments — warm, yellow and loose layers in the cafes of Amsterdam to aggressive reds and militaristic structure on the rough streets of Berlin.

Director Todd Underwood’s staging is smart in achieving this in a small playing space. Movements and transitions are intentional, fueling the actors’ ability to experiment with physicality. Dancing, stomping, hollering, running, climbing and yelling sweep over the show’s high-energy moments. In its quieter ones, however, the work of intimacy director and dialect coach Sarah Shippobotham shines. The Amsterdam sequence is particularly cohesive and exciting, leaving me with songs to hum and moments to chew on.

Having almost non-stop music gives the show momentum, but scenes that aren’t underscored are compelling in an entirely different way. In one scene between the Youth and his mother (Darby-Duffin), she asks him if he will come home from Berlin for Christmas, and their conversation devolves into an emotionally charged and destructive argument. Palmer as the narrator reminds us, as the Youth brushes her off, that he is “trying to find something in life that you can only find in art.” This sentiment layers Carleton’s impassioned and vulnerable performance of “Identity,” as he chants “I let my pain f—ck my ego and I call the b—stard ‘art.’”

Youth’s Journey

Boiled down, “Passing Strange” is a coming-of-age story. While the premise of a musician leaving home to pursue music, change religions, experiment with drugs and sex and find love is familiar, Stew’s score in SLAC’s production becomes so much more. It’s about identity in contexts of race, philosophy and relationships. It’s about family — blood-related and chosen. It’s about finding what feels real when life is fleeting.

“Passing Strange” is not a short show or easy show to accomplish. It requires vocal, physical and emotional stamina that this company at SLAC delivers on this in a way that is powerful and heartfelt. There is no show like it in Utah right now, so don’t miss it.

“Passing Strange” runs runs April 5-May 15 and ticket information can be found here.


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