Isaac “Deacon Izzy” Bell marks an impressive acting debut in Signature’s solid production of the Tony Award-winning musical Passing Strange (★★★★☆). As the Narrator guiding the show’s transatlantic coming-of-age journey from South Central L.A. to Amsterdam, Berlin, and back, Bell — a D.C. artist and musician — credibly fills that liminal space between actor and audience, both invested in the action, and along with us for the ride.
Though Bell’s Narrator stands apart figuratively and physically from Youth (Deimoni Brewington), the young Black musician whose portrait the show paints, the storyteller channels much of the same angst and emotion. And, in Bell’s supple, blues-rock rasp and gentle hand as the evening’s emcee, that channel hits the right frequency relaying the moving music by rockers Stew and Heidi Rodewald, and perceptive book and lyrics by Stew.
Sometimes rough around the edges rendering the show’s high-pitched dramatic moments, Bell sounds made for singing the dynamic, genre-surfing acid rock of songs like “Arlington Hill” and “Must’ve Been High.” Music director Marika Countouris, leading a formidable quartet, coaxes out strains of the ’60s psychedelia dripping from those songs, and pounds out properly aggressive accompaniment when the music skews punk and hardcore.
Wherever this quasi-concert transports us, Bell, Brewington, and the entire cast switch up musical styles convincingly, while also consistently capturing the arch humor of Stew’s script and director Raymond O. Caldwell’s cheeky staging.
Jonathan Dahm Robertson’s blacked-out set, with walls covered in graffiti, plants us inside a rock dive where we might hear Youth and his teenage punk band, The Scaryotypes, ripping through “Sole Brother,” a cri de coeur about not conforming to expected norms of how to be a young Black man in America. “Be a good football-playin’, snazzy-dressin’ brother/So the sisters won’t be able to tell me from the others,” he sings sardonically.
Growing up middle-class, raised by his churchgoing single Mother (Kara-Tameika Watkins) in South Central in the late ’70s, Youth is far from a snazzy-dressin’ baller. He’s a bit of a blerd. Among other outsiders, like twins Sherry and Terry (Imani Branch and Michael J. Mainwaring, bubbling with attitude), is where he finds that he fits. And his sense of isolation is only exacerbated by the fact that his mom just doesn’t get him.
Brewington and Watkins don’t establish that fraught mother-son bond so persuasively, but the characters’ affection despite their disconnect comes through clearly. The foundational relationship with real impact, though, is between Youth and his eccentric, queer, wise yet unfulfilled mentor Mr. Franklin (Tobias A. Young, fabulous), the closeted son of a preacher man.
Mr. Franklin observes over hits off a joint that guys like him and Youth are simply passing as regular Black folks, when in fact, there’s far more to them than people’s narrow conceptions might allow. So, like many artistically-inclined, culturally astute, and yes, woke, brothers before him, from James Baldwin to Jimi Hendrix, Youth takes flight to Europe, searching the world for “the real.”
In Amsterdam he finds love and contentment — too much contentment, he decides — with free-spirit Marianna (sparkling triple threat Alex De Bard), and in Berlin, inspiration and heartbreak with artist revolutionary Desi (Branch).
Everywhere on his odyssey, Youth finds constant reminders that even among his chosen tribes, where he thinks he fits, he can always be made to feel like an outsider. Brewington, affectingly true to the role, registers Youth’s growing pains and epiphanies en route to the real, from tentative 14-year-old to worldly-wise man who tests “the limits of Blackness,” taking a giant adventurous leap to define his art, his identity, and his life for himself.
Passing Strange runs through June 18 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue, in Arlington, Va. There is a Pride Night performance on June 9. Tickets are $40 to $98. Call (703) 820-9771, or visit www.sigtheatre.org.
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