Passing Strange is a bold and brave musical that was quite the strange experience. Hosted at the Meat Market Stables in North Melbourne, the production is set on a long wide stage with a band smack in the middle. With the original book by Stew Rodewald and music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald, this 2008 Tony Award Winning Production sees its Australian Premiere at the hands of Antipodes Theatre Company.
Narrated by Augustin Tchantcho and starring Grant Young as ‘Youth’ alongside Sasha Hennequin as ‘Mother’, Passing Strange is the story of a young African-American male that seemingly has a religious experience at his local Black Church. However, the experience is less religious than it intended to be, as it is the discovery of music and the freedom of expression. His ‘discovery’ sees the young man leave home and travel to Europe, visiting Amsterdam and Berlin. His journey leads him down a path of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll but also sees him loose touch with his hometown and the mother that he has left behind.
With his mind fully set on his ‘musical enlightenment’, will the young man wake up to the calls from his mother to return home before it is too late? Or will he continue this seemingly selfish journey?
What makes this production stand out from others I have seen in recent years would have to be the format with the band right up front and not hidden away to side of stage. They also play a significant role in the overall performance. With musical director Marissa Saroca and Augustin Tchantcho as the narrator and lead vocalist, the band form an entire character. The ensemble of Zahrah Andrews, Tier Ataing, Gabriela van Wyk and Theo Williams round out the remaining cast.
I have not seen a production at the Stables at the Meat Market before, but the performance space is quite small and looked challenging when I entered the venue. There was barely any room to stand in front of the band in the middle and meant that most of the performance happened on either side of the stage. It sounds exhausting having to run from one side of the stage to the other, but the cast made it effortless and made the performance space their own. The addition of road cases as props perfectly fit the aesthetic of a rock musical. I also found the costuming, with the use of the greys and whites, aesthetically pleasing.
The music and lyrics at times were hard to understand and I feel this is more to do with the performance space than the production itself. Whilst I did miss bits and pieces of songs, it did not ruin my experience. The songs themselves are bold and brave and I do not think they would have been able to pull it off without the production’s flawless casting.
The ensemble cast are fantastic and switched between several characters with ease. They even had to put on European accents and at times, sing in those accents, which they pulled off perfectly. At no point did they break their characters, and the vocals were sublime. Not to mention the emotional depth and humour they were able to bring to each character. Bravo.
The clear standouts of this production would have to be Grant Young and Augustin Tchantcho. Young as the main character goes through a bumpy rollercoaster of emotions with a vocal performance to match. Tchantcho leads the whole production as the Narrator and takes full control with his deep soulful voice. Not only does he command the stage when he opens those pipes, he also adds much needed context to the strange story that is unfolding around him.
I have said this word a few times already, but it is the best way to describe this production; Passing Strange is indeed strange, but in a good way. I was captivated, curious and heartbroken by the end. I am thankful for the team over at Antipodes Theatre Company for bringing this early 2000s bold production to the stage in Australia.
The Antipodes Theatre Company production of Passing Strange is on now at the Stables at the Meat Market in North Melbourne until the 10th of July.
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Photography by Angel Leggas.