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  • Writer's pictureAlex First

Passing Strange (Antipodes Theatre Company) - Meat Market Stables (150 minutes, including interval)

A dynamic score characterises a coming-of-age story.

This is a rock musical about a young African American’s journey from Los Angeles to Europe.

The starting point is 1976 and the youngster decides church isn’t for him. Rather, he has opted for Zen Buddhism.

His mother won’t have any of it and hauls him off to hear the word of God, complete with a cavalcade of song.

Photos by Angel Leggas

Even there he manages to shake things up, ditching the youth choir to start his own band, with which he wants to tour.

When that doesn’t work out, he heads first to Amsterdam and then to Berlin, intending to live in Europe forever.

All the while, his mother – who he has distanced – wants him back home, close to kith and kin.

Still, the by now young man pursues his artistic journey of self-discovery, complete with a couple of girls who turn his head … and illicit substances.

Then tragedy strikes.

With music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald, and lyrics and book by the former, Passing Strange won the Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical in 2008.

The musical – the name of which was inspired by a quote from Shakespeare’s Othello – was also adapted for the screen in a documentary by Spike Lee in 2009.

Created in collaboration with Annie Dorsen and directed by Dean Drieberg, the Antipodes Theatre Company production marks its Australian premiere.

It is like a rock concert (there is a talented four-piece band, led by enthusiastic musical conductor Marissa Saroca), with narrative elements.

The music is quite wide and varied, and includes soulful tunes as well as superb, head moving, up tempo numbers.

When the cast sing in chorus, they are tremendous.

The narrator is the glue that binds the piece together and moves along the narrative, on occasions breaking the third wall.

In that guise, I saw Guillaume Gentil because the man slated for the role, Augustin Tchantcho, fell ill.

The characterisations are impressive.

Grant Young plays the disenchanted youngster who can’t seem to find what he is looking for.

Sasha Hennequin is his long-suffering mother, desperately trying to ground him by highlighting to him what she feels should really matter.

I was particularly impressed by Gabriela van Wyk, who brings sass to multiple roles – as four of the others in the cast also have – including young ladies who turn the youth’s head.

Theo Williams, too, has a large presence. In one scene in Germany when he is tearing strips off the “hero”, Williams is positively fearsome.

Hats off to Tier Ataing as the pot smoking preacher’s son, while it appears for a while that Zahrah Andrews, who is big on “love”, has taken the “pilgrim” to the promised land in Germany.

The choreography by Loredo Malcolm in what is a long narrow stage is impressive.

While there is no formal set, lighting plays a large part in setting the mood (there are 11 vertical lighting bars across the back of the thin rectangular platform). Sam Wylie is the lighting designer.

Large, imposing, black equipment boxes with metal edging are used effectively as props.

The themes of disenchantment, rebellion, engagement and finding your own voice are universal and readily relatable.

Passing Strange is an exciting, eclectic and heady mix of rock music with artistic temperament and existential angst.

It is playing at the Meat Market Stables in North Melbourne until 10th July, 2022.


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