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Shows Worth Seeing:


Chad Goodridge, Daniel Breaker, Colman Domingo, Stew and Rebecca Naomi Jones in "Passing Strange," Belasco Theatre, NYC, 2008. Photo: Carol Rosegg.


Passing Strange
By Stew and Heidi Rodewald
Belasco Theatre
111 W. 44th St.
Box office: (212) 239-6200

Rock-and-roll and the stage musical toyed with the prospect of marriage in the late 1960s and early 70s (Tommy, Jesus Christ Superstar, Hair), but inertia and paralyzing nostalgia on both their parts ensured that the knot was never securely tied and commitment would be on-again, off-again. Lately, the heat seems to be on again, as a string of new shows over the past few years beginning with Spring Awakening suggests that good rock songwriters are turning to theater, possibly as an alternative delivery-vehicle in a time of music-industry crisis. Passing Strange, a collaboration between the singer-songwriter Stew and Heidi Rodewald, is not so much a coupling as a group hookup involving theater, rock, blues, punk, gospel and few other musical genres I've no doubt forgotten. The show stars the genial and casual Stew as a narrator-emcee who sings, plays guitar and presides over a story about a young musician named Youth (Stew's alter ego) breaking out of his stifling middle-class L.A. home and lighting out to find the "real" in Amsterdam and Berlin. Four crack musicians share the stage with Stew, playing from shallow pits on each side, and a half dozen superb actors give searing life to the coming-of-age story, muting its clichés with their fine-tuned specificity and spicing it up with a few dead-on satires. There are at least five or six splendid songs in the show but also a few clinkers. The truth is that Stew can't write all the styles he experiments with here equally well, but strangely enough, that doesn't matter much in the end because the Youth's search for his musical self is so charming, and the whole play is so infused with Stew's sweet decency and self-conscious humor. I wasn't sure when I left the theater whether I had just seen a thin story superimposed on a bizarrely disparate album of pop songs or a substantial play of self-discovery cleverly made to fit the far less exacting narrative expectations of the pop song. Either way, it's a delightfully strange fusion that pumps welcome new blood into the musical.


Mandy Gonzales and Christopher Jackson in "In the Heights," Richard Rodgers Theatre, NYC, 2008. Photo: Joan Marcus.




In the Heights
By Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegria Hudes
Richard Rodgers Theatre
226 W. 46th St.
Box office: (212) 239-6200





Like Passing Strange, In the Heights has been widely labeled a rock musical for lack of any other genre to fit it into, but it's actually a fascinatingly complicated mixture. Salsa, rap, tango and numerous other Latin-inspired idioms whose energy has not been tapped sufficiently in musicals all compete for air as the show goes about defining a particular neighborhood, Washington Heights, through a frenetic blend of music and dance. Nothing in the story about neighborhood characters dreaming of "getting out" rings of originality or even freshness. In fact, the main plot premise--that Stanford would summarily yank the scholarship of a Latina freshman because her grades dropped due to holding down two jobs--is flatly preposterous. The appeal of the show is in its supercharged energy, the way it moves from one sizzling tempo to another, using the flimsiest of excuses to set the marvelously athletic cast pumping, bumping and writhing. There's something relentless about it, but that's very clearly the point. You get breathless just watching because the music and dance have accomplished what the dopey sentimental story couldn't: they send you grasping for the fleeting pulse of youth and dreaming of a spirit of renewal that cannot be cheapened by mawkishness. The streetwise choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler and the firecracker music by Lin-Manuel Miranda are the true stars of the evening.



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