Monday, August 31, 2009

Fringe Festival Round 2: The Encores



Back in the old days - namely four years ago - when the Fringe Festival ended, it was over. And you had to wait another 50 weeks for it to hit New York again. But not so anymore. The Fringe Encores series - bringing back a helping of shows that got better-than-average reception - will bring back the following 2009 selections from September 10-26 at the Soho Playhouse and Actors' Playhouse:

And Sophie Comes Too, The Boys Upstairs, Complete, A Contemporary American's Guide to a Successful Marriage c. 1959, Devil Boys From Beyond, Dolls, His Greatness, I Can Has Cheezburger: The MusicLOL!, Jesus Ride, The K of D, an urban legend, MoM--A Rock Concert Musical, Muffin Man, Notes on the Land of Earthquake and Fire, Powerhouse, Sex and the Holy Land, Tales from the Tunnel, terranova, Viral, Willy Nilly: A Musical Exploration of the Most Far-Out Cult Murders of the Psychedelic Era, Zipperface: The Hobo Musical., and Singin' Wid a Sword in Ma Han'.

I can't help but think that the "popularity" of a lot of these shows depended on how militant its cast members were in terms of getting audience members to vote for the shows online.

I saw quite a few of the shows that are now getting revivals. "Jesus Ride," a quirky one-man show, was the best Fringe show I saw this year and is definitely worthy of the spot. "Sex and the Holy Land," about three Long Island post-collegiate girls who venture on a trip to Israel, needs a lot of dramaturgical surgery, but is heartfelt and has a lot going for it. But I can't say that I saw much merit in the musicals "Willy Nilly" or "I Has Cheezburger." I'm hearing a lot of great buzz over "Viral" and look forward to checking it out now.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Seth's Broadway 101











There's a fine, fine line between a Broadway fan and a Broadway fanatic. While the Broadway fan may enjoy the songs of "West Side Story," the fanatic is hopelessly obsessed with the notorious 13-minute TV variety show clip where Cher plays every single male and female role in the show while shouting most of the lyrics. (You can find it on YouTube. It's very entertaining in a destructive kind of way.)

Among the most extreme of Broadway fanatics is Seth Rudetsky, the proudly obsessive musical theater geek who has been a performer, author, pianist and talk show host. While his weekly radio broadcasts and nightclub shows are full of humor and fun trivia, Rudetsky has really hit his creative stride with "Seth's Broadway 101," billed by its creator as "a master class in belting, divas and hostile opinions."

Using a wide assortment of original cast albums and Tony Awards video clips, while accomponied by a six-piece band and a chorus of dancers and Broadway singers (including Natasha Diaz and Andy Karl), Rudetsky aims to teach his audience in under 90 minutes how to be just as much of a musical theater theater geek as him. It almost feels as if you're being converted to a new religion based on the worship of Patti LuPone, Betty Buckley and Angela Lansbury.

For instance, Rudetsky explains the difference between a singer's head voice and chest voice by analyzing Janice Paige's problematic vocal performance on the original cast album of "The Pajama Game." When it comes to choreography, he teaches an audience member how to dance Gower Champion's deceptively simple staging of "The Lullabye of Broadway" from "42nd Street." He also explores a staging mishap committed by Patti LuPone in "Evita" through an extreme closeup of her left arm.

On top of Rudetsky's expert knowledge of Broadway folklore, what really makes this an irresistible piece of theater is Rudetsky's manic energy, unapologetic flamboyance and self-deprecating sense of humor. Here's hoping that the intimate show, which has played limited runs in recent years in different shapes and sizes, eventually receives the extended run it deserves.

Ars Nova, 511 W. 54th St., 212-352-3101, www.arsnova.com. Sun, 7:30 & 9:30 P.M.

Friday, August 28, 2009

What Can I Review Next Week?

There is next to nothing that I can write a theater review of next week. This isn't a new occurrence for me. The week between the end of the Fringe Festival and Labor Day is like the armpit of the annual theatergoing season. No one wants to open a show right now. But if someone did open their show now, they'd get the full attention of critics such as myself who write at least one review per week.

All I've been able to find so far is some avant-garde revision of "The Importance of Being Earnest" at the Ontological Hysteric-Theater that began performances on Thursday night of this week. I don't think I've ever visited that space before when it wasn't for a Richard Foreman show.

I actually thought I had found a suitable candidate for review in "The Pride of Parnell," an Irish play at 59E59 that starts performances this Tuesday. However, it turns out that won't officially open for another week.

Maybe something that opened earlier in the summer? I'd consider "The Boychick Affair," which looks like some interactive theater fun. And perhaps could bring back some memories of my own Bar Mitzvah - though I'm not sure that's something I'd really want to remember.

Or what about returning to a long-running show to review the new cast? No celebs entered any famous Broadway shows this summer as temporary replacements (i.e. Mario Lopez in "A Chorus Line," Melanie Griffith in "Chicago"). No wait, that's not true. There's Jerry Springer in "Chicago," but that press agent hasn't gotten back to me either - and I doubt its producers want him to be reviewed.

Maybe I can return to "The Little Mermaid" and re-review it right before its closing. But given my original review of that show - and the fact it's already sold out - I really doubt its producers would give me press comps. Furthermore, my dates are off. The show closes this weekend!

The verdict: I finally got in touch with the press agents for "Boychick Affair," "Importance of Being Earnest," and the Irish Rep. All now set up. But here's another idea - is there a way to write a theater review of sorts of the Metropolitan Opera's free HD video screening festival? Or, how about a look back at "9 to 5" before it closes and an analysis of why it failed? We shall see.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Video Preview Clips of the Day: "Bye Bye Birdie" and "Glee"

At the end of the video, the entire cast sings the song "Bye Bye Birdie," which has been in both film versions, but was not in the original stage version. I guess this means that it's been added to the revival. You can also see some "Telephone Hour" choreography at the beginning.



Ari Gold is the Champ


In what must be a striking blow to the producers of last season's revival of "Speed-the-Plow," the arbitrators of Actors' Equity Association ruled in favor of Jeremy Piven in its review of whether Jeremy Piven breached his employment contract when he left the show without any notice while crying mercury poisoning. Now if only Piven can restore his reputation.
But get this - Piven is ready to return to the stage! "I had a real health scare, and now I can climb back on the stage and know that I’m strong and able to complete the mission," he told The New York Times.

Oh Kerry, I'm in Love




Kerry Butler will take over the role of Sherrie in "Rock of Ages." Interestingly, she will only perform 6 out of 8 performances a week, with the understudy doing both Sunday shows. Perhaps the producers learned a lesson from the vocal ailments of original cast member Amy Spanger?

The 'Ragtime' Revival Broadway Poster






It looks like a giant afro - but it manages to convey a lot about the show's themes all at once.

Parker Posey Withdraws from Off-Broadway Play


Poor Parker Posey has lime disease, so she's withdrawing from the cast of "This," which opens in December at Playwrights Horizons. But did press agents really need to reveal the lime disease fact in the release? Couldn't they have just said she was leaving for personal reasons?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Video Clips of the Week: West Side Variations

Just in case you forgot what "A Boy Like That" sounds like in English...




This promo for the upcoming MTV Music Video Awards uses the "Tonight" quintet from "West Side Story" as its jumping point.



Just for fun, let's throw in Cher's infamous "West Side Story" clip, which is highlighted and deconstructed in "Seth's Broadway 101."



Relatively little is known about "Memphis," the new musical opening at the Shubert Theatre. It apparently had a free barbeque on Wednesday afternoon in Shubert Alley to pep up some excitement. Here's some video footage we found on YouTube from its regional premiere.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Dance a Little Longer



The dance spectacle "Burn the Floor," in spite of some pretty harsh reviews, is catching on with the fans of TV dance shows. It'll now extend its limited run at the Longacre Theatre, once set for only 12 weeks, through Jan. 3, 2010.

I'm Dreaming of...Another White Christmas



The holiday musical based on the classic film, brimming with a jukebox of Irving Berlin tunes and Randy Skinner dance choreography, will return to the Marquis Theatre in November for a limitd run through Jan 3, 2010.

Biggest Rumors Around Town


A top-secret screening of the "Nine" film is taking place on Thursday. And by top-secret, I mean that I wasn't invited :(

"I Feel Pretty" and "A Boy Like That," which have been performed completely in Spanish in the Broadway revival of "West Side Story," are being converted into a mix of English and Spanish.

On Friday, Michael Riedel of The New York Post reported that Catherine Zeta-Jones is now expected to play Desiree in Trevor Nunn's Broadway revival of "A Little Night Music" alongside Angela Lansbury. Click here for the article.

But who is in the rest of the "Night Music" cast besides those two? If you go to BroadwayWorld, you will find several message boards with literally hundreds of posts speculating and predicting the rest of the cast. So what's the current buzz? I have no idea how accurate these posts are, but they point in the direction of Brian Stokes Mitchell as Frederick and Erin Davie as Charlotte. (But in terms of credibility, keep in mind that they also predicted that Desiree would be played by either Kate Winslet, Marin Mazzie or Hannah Waddingham. I don't think any of them saw Zeta-Jones coming.)

Relatively few details about the "Bye Bye Birdie" revival have been released. Will any songs be added, for instance? Gina Gershon told The Daily News that "The Shriners Ballet" in Act Two has been cut, deeming it to be too similar to a gang rape. Click here for the article.

A reading of the forthcoming Broadway play version of the 1960s film "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" this week will feature Jesse L. Martin. and John Cullum.

Britney Spears, who is in town to do concerts at Madison Square Garden, took the kids to see "The Little Mermaid" and "Wicked."

Look, Look, Look to the Rainbow

Noises Off (Shakespeare Theatre of NJ)


Kind of a surprise to find Harriet Harris doing regional theater in nearby New Jersey. But it's definitely a benefit we ought to take advantage of. She is an absolute riot as Dottie, the absent-minded actress who plays an absent-minded housekeeper, in the crowd-pleasing farce "Noises Off." Unlike in past productions, I saw a true progression in Harris' performance from Act One to Act Three - moving from mere insecurity and frustration to Sweeney Todd-level insanity.

Having visited the intimate theater on three earlier occasions to see classic dramas, I wasn't sure whether they would have the stagecraft to produce "Noises Off," which requires the set of a two-story English home that can swing to reveal backstage. Not only did they have the set, but they did something I've never seen before in a professional production of the show: they changed the set in front of the audience during intermission - no curtain.

One really small comment. It's not clear whether this production is dated in the present or 1983, when the play originally opened. And this has a lot to do with Jack Moran, who plays the small role of the stagehand Tim. In Act One, he is seen wearing a "Billy Elliot: The Musical" t-shirt, leading us to believe that the production is dated in the present. But in the fake "Noises On" playbill (for the play-within-the-play), it mentions that his most recent gigs were in the early 1980s.

I found it interesting how, in this production, I enjoyed Act One far more than I usually do. It was pitch-perfect comedy. And while Act Two was fun as well, it did not appear to be ready for prime-time. Act Two, as those familiar with the farce know, is a comedic ballet of nonstop slapstick. It's probably the funniest scene in modern theater. But I imagine that, given the time constraints of this limited run, perfecting it might just be impossible. But no matter. The fun that is offered is more than plentiful.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Songs for a New World (Patrick Michael McMurphy Foundation)

It's no secret that Jason Robert Brown is extremely protective over "Songs for a New World" and supposedly turns down requests to produce the show within New York City. It's actually not a surprise considering how difficult the revue is vocally. But this weekend it is receiving four performances at Off-Broadway's Theater Row to benefit the Patrick Michael McMurphy Foundation, an arts charity named in the memory of an actor who fell to his death last summer in a tragic accident.

While many of the show's songs turn up in cabaret performances ("Stars and the Moon," "King of the World"), the song cycle is hardly ever done as a whole. Even the 1990s recording with Jessica Molaskey lacks many of the musical motifs that connect the songs together. Perhaps that's the reason I had forgotten - in spite of the fact that all of its songs are meant to tell independent stories and pull on different emotions - "Songs for a New World" is far more brilliant and compelling as a single combined entity.

Ryan B. Gibbs' production is surprisingly strong for a four-performance Equity showcase. The set, built out of wood on several levels and white sheets at the top, suggests a ship. This allows the themes of the song "On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship" to implicitly continue throughout the production. (I particularly liked how several leaned over a rail as if it were part of a ship.) The colorful lighting was also pretty great. Gibbs' cast makes very strong character choices in nearly every single song, bringing out strong and convincing emotions within specific situations. Nick Williams' four-person band is nothing short of extraordinary, especially Williams himself on piano.

The four-member cast (Amy Decker, E.J. Griffon, Kim Kalish, Jonathan B. Howard) is a more than competent quartet. While all of them are strong actors, half of them lack the vocal prowess to do justice to JRB's songs. In any case, I really need to single out Amy Decker for her extraordinarily heartfelt renditions of "I'm Not Afraid," "Christmas Lullaby" and "The Flagmaker."

Friday, August 21, 2009

Burn the Floor


As you’d probably expect from a show titled “Burn the Floor,” the dance movements are flawlessly executed. Further, the dancers’ bodies look flawlessly chiseled. But in spite of this two-hour helping of nonstop athletics and erotic flavor, this obvious attempt to cash in on the popularity of television dance competitions feels lame and tame and tacky.

Originally conceived as a limited performance at Elton John’s 50th birthday bash, this Latin and ballroom dance spectacle has since been performed in over 30 countries. Its eclectic dance card showcases the Cha-Cha, Rumba, Salsa, Lindy, Foxtrot, Charleston, Tango, Mambo, Quickstep, Swing, Viennese Waltz and so on.
Jason Gilkison, a former dance champion who served as a guest choreographer on the fourth season of “So You Think You Can Dance”, stages it. Its international cast of 18 dancers is headlined by “Dancing with the Stars” vets Karina Smirnoff and Maksim Chmerkovskiy.

Not a single show has opened on Broadway since early May. And while it’s nice to see some new life breathed into the Great White Way, “Burn the Floor” is little more than a cheesy and repetitive spectacle designed for tourists who would like to see dancing – stretching from the stage even into the aisles – as accompanied by a loud percussive beat. And absolutely nothing else.

On Broadway, dance has traditionally stood out for the intelligent ways in which it is integrated into Broadway musicals, furthering plot and accentuating character development. But on dance reality TV shows, it is treated as just a spectator sport.

If Broadway were a cruise ship, “Burn the Floor” might provide acceptably mindless after dinner entertainment. But when running alongside triumphs of choreography such as “West Side Story” and “Billy Elliot,” the vanities, emptiness and repetitive nature of “Burn the Floor” are all too noticeable.

Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th St., 212-239-6200, burnthefloor.com. Through Oct 18.



Camelot (Goodspeed Opera House)


New York musical theater fans have no problem getting to New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse thanks to easy train transportation. But what about Connecticut's Goodspeed Opera House in East Hadam? Though you can take the train to nearby New Haven, that's still not far enough. You'd have to either take a taxi or rent a car to get to the theater from there.

Such is why I have not visited this haven of old-fashioned musicals for three years - not since Scott Schwartz's 2006 production of "Lil Abner." This year's mainstage season at Goodspeed consists of three popular (i.e. recession-proof) titles: "42nd Street," "Camelot" and "Forum." I would have checked out "42nd Street" were it not for the bar exam. But at least I was able to take in "Camelot" last Wednesday night, which happened to be the formal press night.

It's no secret that "Camelot" maintains an extremely mixed critical opinion. Sure, it has one of the most sumptuous scores in musical theater history from Lerner and Loewe. And the original cast recording with Julie Andrews, Robert Goulet and Richard Burton can't be beat. But it continues to be haunted by its problematic book, which attempts to condense a grand-scale Arthurian legend based on the huge tome "The Once and Future King"; its unofficial affiliation with the Kennedy administration; its reputation as the sequel to "My Fair Lady"; its god-awful film version with Vanessa Redgrave and Richard Harris; and last season's god-awful concert production at the New York Philharmonic.

But I would go so far as to say that one of the largest problems as of late has been the tendency to cast King Arthur with an aging star. Prior to his death, Robert Goulet toured the country for years as King Arthur. Even two years ago, Michael York played the role. Let's face facts: Arthur is supposed to be a fairly young and inexperienced leader. He can't be older than his tutor Merlyn!

As such, I was glad that Goodspeed's production cast Bradley Dean as Arthur, who looked young and handsome enough to be a believable Arthur. In fact, his Arthur showed a mix of hopeful optimism, sadness, confusion and pride. It was a pretty moving performance. By the same token, Erin Davie proved to be a wonderful and complex Guenevere, changing from a hot-headed and immature schoolgirl to a guilt-stricken but courageous woman.

As Lancelot, Maime de Toledo, who insisted on delivering all his lines in an extremely mechanical tone and purposely phoney French accent, was less successful. He was also a lot less handsome than Bradley Dean. Why would Guenevere want to leave Arthur for him? Even if the recent Philharmonic production was pretty bad, Nathan Gunn, who played Lancelot, was a striking Lancelot who won not only the affection of Guenevere, but every gal in the audience too.

The intimate eight-person orchestra sounded terrific. And the cast of knights and ladies, while crowding the stage from top to bottom, displayed a strong commitment to the story. I was especially impressed with how well Ruggiero used the small Goodspeed cast to his advantange, especially as the cast filled the entire theater during "Guenevere." But Ruggiero did make one small but noticeable error: Lancelot should not be drinking and fooling around with the other knights at the top of Act Two. Lancelot would consider himself too preen and proper to do such a thing!

Revisions to the script, which have been occasionally used since the original Broadway production, help to alleviate some of the plot problems. Just like the film version, this production frames the action of the musical as a flashback, starting the musical with Arthur on the battlefield, just moments prior to taking aim against Lancelot and the French troops. This move helps to reconcile the fact that Act One is mainly a comedy and Act Two is a tragedy. The placement of "If Ever I Would Leave You," which Lancelot sings to Guenevere, was also shifted from the top of Act Two to directly after "I Loved You Once in Silence" much later in the act. While that happened to be a more emotional moment for Lancelot, as Guenevere had called off their longtime love affair, the placement was too awkward and tacked on to be truly successful.

If I were revising "Camelot," I'd remove the character of King Pellinore altogether, who serves no real function other than comic relief and a buddy for Arthur to speak with. If I were directing "Camelot," I'd seriously consider how to redesign the show to move it away from the folksy medieval garb that has so overwhelmed the show's typical design.

Can't help but wonder whether "Camelot" will receive the Broadway revival that it deserves. Maybe this would make a prime candidate for a City Center Encores summer production? Or, better yet, how about a Lincoln Center revival helmed by the "South Pacific" creative team?





A Lifetime Burning



“A Lifetime Burning,” the title of Cusi Cram’s new drama, is lifted from a T.S. Eliot quote: “As we grow older the world becomes stranger…Not the intense moment isolated, with no before and after, but a lifetime burning in every moment…”

But even if you’re not a student of modern poetry, the plot of “A Lifetime Burning” is easily recognizable if you recall last year’s “Love and Consequences” fiasco, in which Margaret Seltzer, an upper-middle class white woman, wrote a memoir where she falsely claimed to have grown up as a half white, half Native American foster child and gang member.

In a “Lifetime Burning,” Emma (played by Jennifer Westfeldt), a privileged white gal, writes a memoir where she claims to be part Inca and have come from a background of drug abuse, gangs and foster care. Just as with Margaret Seltzer, the author’s sister pulls the plug on the hoax by contacting the publisher and revealing the truth.

After Emma’s lies are revealed, Cram sympathetically attempts to rationalize Emma’s desire to rewrite her past by exploring the character’s manic-depressive, bipolar personality and her earlier encounters with a Latino male teenager, who becomes her student and then lover, and Lydia, a bitter and alcoholic literary agent, performed to campy heights by Isabel Keating.
Cram uses Lydia mainly to rattle off observations about the American attraction to memoirs as opposed to fiction. “185 novels were published by the major houses last year versus 250 memoirs,” she tells us. “People feel the need to know that what they are reading is linked to some kind of absolute truth.”

Though Cram deserves credit for taking on a very timely topic, her exploration of Emma’s psyche feels just as unconvincing and phony as the fabricated memoir that the character penned.
Luckily, Jennifer Westfeldt proves yet again to be a gorgeous and extremely captivating actress who can soak in a challenging role and triumphantly rise above a problematic play. Here’s hoping she’ll be onstage again soon.

59E59, 59 East 59th St., 212-279-4200, 59E59.org. Through Sept 5.

Puppetry of the Penis


Think of it as theatergoing for the bachelorette party crowd starring the penis, scrotum and testicles.

While "The Vagina Monologues" has no actual nudity, "Puppetry of the Penis" is an NC-17-rated Australian oddity that has turned into a shocking decade-old international phenomenon. Other than a brief opening sequence with a stand-up comedian offering explicit sexual humor (Rachel Feinstein, Giulia Rozzi and Amy Schumer on alternating nights), it offers nonstop stark nudity from two brave male performers for a solid hour.

But what separates "Puppetry of the Penis" from being pure pornography is how the nudity is used to create genital origami, which is apparently an ancient artform. In between comic narration, these two so-called "puppeteers" (no puppets are ever used) manipulate their privates into a variety of shapes that suggest a hamburger, a hot dog, The Loch Ness Monster, a waving flag and several different sea creatures.

Even though its Off-Broadway space is fairly intimate, a live video camera is used to zoom in and project the penis onto a giant screen in the background. So while there is no need to bring along a magnifying glass, audience members are still encouraged to take pics on their cell phones.

Just how Rich Binning and Christopher J. Cannon, two recent grads from Pittsburgh's Point Park University, are able to fearlessly endure so many contortions from vigorous stretching, pulling and twisting is absolutely unimaginable. Ironically, would audience members should probably be advised not to try these tricks at home, a how-to book is sold in the lobby that teaches men in a step-by-step manner how to bring new uses to their genitals.

What really helps turn "Puppetry of the Penis" into hysterical fun - no matter one's sexual proclivities - is the charisma and geuine sincerity of its clownish performers. In what is a kind of human bonding experience, the audience is invited to feel equally as silly and shameless as the cast.

Bleecker Street Theatre, 45 Bleecker St., 212-239-6200, puppetryofthepenis.com. Through Aug 30.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Andrian Grenier on his Fringe Festival show


Why is Adrian Grenier, heartthrob of HBO's "Entourage," serving as the above-the-title producer of "Victoria & Frederick for President," an unknown drama about Frederick Douglass and Victoria Woodhull at the Fringe Festival? We scored an interview with the actor and asked him why. He was cited on Monday night at the show's opening night.
Q: Adrian, what brings you to the Fringe Festival?

A: Well, (the playwright) John Davidson and I have been friends for, I guess, since seventh grade. For quite a long time. And we went to theater school together and we’ve been sort of working together and helping each other out on our projects over the yers. I’ve worked the lights for many of his shows, moved chairs around, held back the curtain, sold tickets, sold the wine at intermission. We’ve had a strong collaboration and friendship for so many years. And now, you know, I’ve watched him grow as a writer and now he’s written this amazing piece. Now I am here to support it in whatever way I can. Unfortunately, I can’t do the lights again. But I'm here to help.

Q: What attracts you to the play?

A: Well, there's a lot of educational elements to it. But the great thing about it is that it doesn’t feel like a lecture because John has been able to modernize it. It’s history looked through the eyes of modern media. As if the media existed back in the late 1700s. How would they be handling it? There are a lot of parallels between back then and what’s been happening lately with Obama and Palin. And a lot of people take it for granted that this is a new thing. This isn't the first time women have gotten so close to the White House. A black man for the White House. It all started way back in the day.

Q: Are you a history buff at all?

A: History was never my forte. And, in fact, I don’t recall it being John’s forte. But then he turns around and comes up with this thoroughly interesting piece. I mean, I’m just very impressed. I guess when you’re so talented and you have an interest, you just dig in and you start to uncover all these truths.

Q: Do you think the play has potential to be a film?

A: Absolutely. I think it would be a great movie. I'm really excited becuase bringing it to the silver screen an opportunity for John and I to work together again and bring it to a lot more people.

Q: Do you think the play will transfer commercially?

A: Yeah. I wouldn't be surprised if that happen. A lot of people don't go to the theater these days, which is unfortunate. So it's hard to get a foothold in that world. But I’m confident that once we open, people will want to make this something that lasts longer than the short time period we have it running for.

Q: Do you see yourself acting in a show in New York anytime soon?

A: You know, I do like plays. I always loved "Oliver!". But maybe I'm a little too old to play Oliver. But maybe in some alternative universe, Oliver is someone like me. The great thing about theater and plays is you can reinterpret everything. That's what John has done here.

Passing Strange


"Passing Strange," a rock musical that quickly folded on Broadway last year after failing to attract an audience, is an acquired taste. At first, it may feel too slow and lacking in plot and spectacle to keep your attention. But after a while, this deeply felt memoir really starts to grow on you. And those who dismissed it as trash during its stage run - including yours truly - can now bow their heads in shame.


Written by Stew, a short and bald alternative rock artist with a coffeehouse attitude, "Passing Strange" is his coming-of-age story. His alter ego, played by Daniel Breaker, is a middle-class black youth in 1970s California. Dissatisfied with his single mother's cloying affection and clean-cut middle-class background, he forms a talentless rock band and then travels to the sex parlors of Amsterdam and artist colonies of Berlin in desperate search of a unique identity and some "real" inspiration.


When Spike Lee first caught a performance of "Passing Strange," he reportedly thought of adapting it into a fully separate film. But "Passing Strange" is not so much a traditional story but a rock concert narrated by Stew while an ensemble of six black actors reenacts his memories. It couldn't work as a film without removing Stew. But by the same token, it can't be performed onstage again without Stew. So, in a very smart move, Lee simply filmed the Broadway production, perfectly preserving its onstage energy. The camera even travels backstage during intermission and invades the audience.


Stew's electric guitar-induced score runs the gamit from genuine rock and rhythm and blues to a merciless parody of the Broadway show tune ("The Black One"). The songs also span a rainbow of emotions, including the youth's drug-induced peace in "Arlington Hill," a sensation of sexual liberation in "Amsterdam," his mother's ignored plea for understanding in "Mom's Song," and finally Stew's cathartic plea for forgiveness in "Love Like That."


Daniel Breaker is sensationally animated as the young Stew, switching effortlessly from restless frustration and giddy silliness to finally despair and hard-earned knowledge. Stew, who sings, plays guitar and provides deadpan comedy, is an affable and honest storyteller. The rest of the cast excels in portraying a variety of characters with varying wavelengths of theatricality.