Restless teen has a ticket to ride

The Youth (Taylor Moss, center) discovers Dutch-style free love with the help of Amsterdam friends (from left) David Glover, Zoe Lathan, Rico Parker and Mia Angelique Fowler (photo by Megan Leigh)
The Youth (Taylor Moss, center) discovers Dutch-style free love with the help of Amsterdam friends (from left) David Glover, Zoe Lathan, Rico Parker and Mia Angelique Fowler (photo by Megan Leigh)

By Richard Ades

If you saw American Idiot during the touring show’s recent Columbus stop, Passing Strange may give you a feeling of déjà vu. But it won’t last.

Though both musicals are about youthful angst and wanderlust, Passing Strange is infinitely more personal and personable. The black teen at its center may be known simply as the Youth, but his globe-trotting adventures are far from generic.

With book and lyrics by Stew, who co-wrote the music with Heidi Rodewald, the tale is also filled with heart and satirical humor. That distinguishes it from American Idiot and its angry punk-rock rants.

In short, the average (read: non-Green Day-worshipping) theatergoer is more likely to enjoy Passing Strange, especially given the wonderful production that Short North Stage and director Mark Clayton Southers have put together.

It’s hard to imagine a more perfect cast.

Taylor Moss is graceful, impressionable and self-centered as the Youth, who believes he’ll never come into his own as a musician until he escapes his South Central L.A. home. Michelle Golden is devoted, possessive and pitiable as the Mother, who wants her son to be happy but can’t understand why he has to leave home to do it.

Each member of the supporting cast plays multiple roles and has one or two chances to really stand out. For example, Rico Romalus Parker raises spirits as the sermonizing Rev. Jones, while David Glover is delightfully mischievous as his pot-smoking son. Mia Angelique Fowler and Zoe Lathan leave indelible impressions as various girls and women who pull the Youth into their spheres of influence.

All display fine voices, but the mightiest pipes properly belong to Ron Jenkins, who pushes the tale along as the all-seeing Narrator.

The musical’s satirical bent comes out early in its depiction of an African-American church as a weekly fashion show. Later, after the Youth seeks his fortune in Amsterdam and Berlin, it hilariously dissects the self-righteousness of young leftist radicals. When a musician touts Clash as an example of music’s political relevance, a German naysayer retorts, “Punk rock was a marketing strategy.”

Though Passing Strange’s 2008 Broadway production won a Tony only for its book, the songs throb with wit, spirit and warmth. A charismatic band supplies both instrumental and vocal support under the direction of P. Tim Valentine, while gyrating cast members often carry the infectious beats into the aisles.

Back on the somewhat echo-y stage, Robert Kuhn’s two-story set is marked by a series of doors that symbolize the Youth’s quest for relevance and fulfillment.

Speaking of that quest, the musical makes it clear that all choices come with a price. The finale is tinged with regret as it questions the value of art. In creating fiction, the rueful Narrator asks, are artists merely attempting to make up for their real-life shortcomings?

Humorous and uplifting, thoughtful and heartbreaking, Passing Strange is the kind of transcendent musical experience that comes along all too rarely in Columbus. If you miss it, you’ll regret it.

Short North Stage will present Passing Strange through May 5 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St. Show times are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $30. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.

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Punk rock comes to the Palace

By Richard Ades

American Idiot begins with its title song, which tries to explain the alienation of the trio of teens at the show’s center by describing the mindset of post-9/11 America.

Johnny (Alex Nee, left) and the drug-pushing St. Jimmy (Trent Saunders) perform a number from American Idiot (photo by John Daughtry)
Johnny (Alex Nee, left) and the drug-pushing St. Jimmy (Trent Saunders) perform a number from American Idiot (photo by John Daughtry)

Unless you’re familiar with the Green Day concept album that inspired the show, however, you’ll probably miss the song’s point. It’s blasted out at a volume that renders most of the lyrics indecipherable.

But don’t worry. The time and setting aren’t all that important anyway. Johnny, Will and Tunny feel alienated for reasons that have more to do with youthful angst than with politics. If they’d lived in the 1950s, they would have been just as mad, though they probably would have expressed that anger with rockabilly rather than punk rock.

Another reason not to worry is that the bombastic opening eventually gives way to calmer songs that are easier to understand and relate to. Many of them are both catchy and beautiful, making them the show’s chief draw.

They’re certainly more rewarding than the plot, which sees the teens living up to the show’s title by making a series of moves that are as ill-conceived as they are generic.

Johnny (Alex Nee) moves to the big city and falls for the lusty Whatsername (Alyssa DiPalma), then undermines the relationship by becoming addicted to hard drugs under the tutelage of the charismatic St. Jimmy (Trent Saunders). Tunny (Thomas Hettrick) accompanies Johnny to the city but—apparently because he thinks women can’t resist a man in uniform—joins the Army just in time to get sent to Iraq.

Will wants to join his friends in the city, but he’s forced to stay behind after girlfriend Heather (Kennedy Caughell) announces she’s pregnant. Rather than embrace his new family, he tries to drown his disappointment in drink and drugs.

Nee, DiPalma and Saunders are particularly impressive, but all of the performers are committed and sport fine singing voices. The latter is important because this is a sung-through musical other than a few words of narration that Johnny delivers in the form of letters to his mother.

Michael Mayer directs the show, whose book he co-wrote with Green Bay’s Billie Joe Armstrong. Mayer also directed the 2010-11 Broadway version, which was up for the Tony for Best Musical but won only for scenic design and lighting.

Those elements are equally award-wordy in the touring production. Christine Jones’s stark scenery is highlighted by more than two dozen TV sets built into the walls. Kevin Adams’s lighting includes such dazzling special effects as cascades of ascending shadows.

Steven Hoggett’s choreography is characterized by violent head-banging. It turns graceful only when a wire-suspended Hettrick and Jenna Rubaii perform acrobatic moves several yards above the stage in Extraordinary Girl.

Though American Idiot is being presented as part of the Broadway in Columbus series, it’s hardly typical of the touring shows the group normally brings to town. Besides the loud rock and drug use, it includes an explicit sex scene. Add the generic characters and plot, and it’s easy to understand why several older patrons walked out during Tuesday’s opening-night performance.

Devotees of traditional musicals might feel as alienated as its leading characters, but those familiar with Green Day, punk rock and youthful angst will feel right at home.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present American Idiot through Sunday (March 24) at the Palace Theatre, 34 W. Broad St. Show times are 8 p.m. through Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes. Tickets are $28-$78. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000 or ticketmaster.com.

You probably weren’t there, but you’ll wish you were

Brandon Anderson (left) and Leah Haviland sing Mellow Yellow in a scene from Underland (photo by Mark Bealer)
Brandon Anderson (left) and Leah Haviland sing Mellow Yellow in a scene from Underland (Studio 66 photo)

By Richard Ades

I didn’t make it to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district until several years after the 1967 “Summer of Love.” By then, most of the flower children seemed to have disappeared.

What I found, instead, was dog poop. Mounds and mounds of dog poop, effectively turning the sidewalks into obstacle courses. It seemed that curbing your dog, much less picking up after it, was a foreign concept in this former capital of the counter-culture.

As a result of my tardy arrival at the Haight, I reacted to Shadowbox Live’s Underland much like I reacted to its earlier original musical, the Woodstock-based Back to the Garden. In each case, I was left with a feeling of wistful nostalgia—wistful because I hadn’t experienced either Woodstock or the Summer of Love. I only wished I had.

Written by Shadowbox’s Jimmy Mak, both musicals attempt to re-create a bygone era with the aid of a sketchy plot and memorable musical hits of the day. Both accomplish the task, but Back to the Garden did it a bit more successfully: The story was more compelling, and many of the rock songs were sung by facsimiles of the original performers, raising the fun quotient.

But Underland, directed by the always-inventive Stev Guyer, is impressive in its own right. It’s impossible not to enjoy a show that starts with If You’re Going to San Francisco, ends with A Whiter Shade of Pale and includes more than a dozen other classics in between. Music director Matt Hahn captures their original sound and spirit so effectively that suspicious patrons may think the performers are simply lip-synching to the originals. (They’re not, of course.)

Tying it all together is a plot that’s a mixture of Alice in Wonderland-inspired fantasy and wartime reality.

Albert (Robbie Nance), a vet who served as a sniper in Vietnam, arrives in the Haight in search of his missing daughter. His quest brings him into contact with local eccentrics such as Father William (JT Walker III), who doles out drugs along with spiritual guidance. More disturbingly, Albert encounters mystical characters seen only by him: the supportive Mouse (Edelyn Parker), the hyper-critical Cat (Amy Lay) and the gung-ho warrior Greenie (Tom Cardinal).

As Albert, a sincere Nance fulfills his main purpose, which is to anchor this return to a time and place that helped to define a decade. Still, his part is rather thinly written. More interesting than Albert’s search are the sights and sounds he encounters along the way.

The sights include the Diggers, a group of thespians who supplied the real-life Haight with both political satire and food. In Underland, they force Albert to take part in a skit involving a giant head representing LBJ.

But the sounds, in the form of ’60s rock hits, are the real backbone of Underland’s appeal. Oddly, the most fun of all is the laid-back Mellow Yellow, thanks to inspired performances by Brandon Anderson as an animated shopkeeper and Leah Haviland as his downer-addicted wife.

Among the most beautiful numbers is Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence, sung by Walker’s Father William and a series of strangers who wander by. Others include How Can I Be Sure, sung by Nikki Fagin with a rich voice that may remind you of Karen Carpenter.

Purists may complain about the way some classics are used. The Who’s I Can See for Miles, for example, is about an unfaithful lover, not about a struggle for battlefield survival. That said, Underland’s version, sung by Cardinal and accompanied by video images of wartime violence, does achieve a kind of surreal power.

A more serious complaint is that a couple of songs are cut off in the prime of life. It’s especially annoying that Respect ends just as vocalist Katy Psenicka and the band really start cookin’.

All will likely be forgiven by the time Julie Klein wraps up the show with a gorgeous rendition of Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade of Pale, but still. After waiting 46 years for Shadowbox’s take on the Summer of Love, we can certainly wait a few minutes more for it to come to an end.

Underland continues through May 19 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St. Show times are 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Running time: 2 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $30, $20 for students and seniors. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.