Review by Thomas Gregory
In a country that has suffered through tonnes of Disney adaptations, it is quite unfair that it has taken so many years until the Tony-award-winning “Passing Strange” has made it to our shores. Antipodes Theatre should be applauded for its recognition of such a travesty, and determination to rectify such a mistake. Their production of the rock musical was welcome for not only being the first but by offering a show worthy of the text.
“Passing Strange” is, at first glance, a musical based on a simple premise - the coming-of-age of a young musician, made more complex by the struggle for identity that is faced by the broader African-American community. The semi-autobiographical tale by Mark Stewart is told with humour and heart, wildly energetic music, and a tinge of regret. While only a few songs truly stand out as memorable (“Keys” being my personal highlight), all are entertaining in the moment. The use of the narrator as character, and the interaction between band and performers, makes for a truly original production.
Antipodes Theatre found an extremely competent cast for this premiere performance, with every performer having their time to shine. The ensemble of Gabriela van Wyk, Theo Williams, Tier Ataing, and Zahrah Andrews did a commendable job playing multiple characters throughout the night, each finding their way to make unique connections to Grant Young’s protagonist. Young himself made a brilliant lead, brilliantly capturing the naivety and false confidence with undertones of fear and vulnerability.
Sasha Hennequin’s portrayal of the mother is something special. Poised without ever being cold, nurturing without ever being smothering, Hennequin is able to present the character Mark Stewart somewhat-deifies in a way that is real and believable. The directorial decision to put the character to the side of the action as an “ever-watching figure” is sometimes questionable, but I completely empathise with the desire to give Hennequin more time on stage.
The runaway star of the night, however, was clearly Augustin Tchantcho. Highly charismatic, with an incredible voice and impeccable comic timing, one can assume that Tchantcho’s narrator is the one Stewart himself wished he could pull off. Even more impressively, when times came for the vibrant personality to fade into the background, Tchantcho almost dissolved away, like some mystical force. This absolute control over audience focus is something I rarely experience in theatre and it was sometimes difficult not to be mesmerised.
Having not seen the production before, I cannot say if it is the writer or director I should be praising for putting the musicians front and centre in this production, but it was definitely the correct choice. The band is not the provider of backing music in “Passing Strange”, but an integral part of the performance. Led by the incredible Marissa Saroca, it is the band that ultimately set the mood of the show, and provided the energy that drove everyone else to their best performances.
I hesitate to mention the unfortunate interruptions to opening night (the show’s name may have come from Othello, but I suspect it is haunted by another Shakespearean play). However, if I do not mention the unavoidable events, I cannot properly praise Saroca’s ability to keep the audience entertained, bring the energy back to the show, and help the cast find their feet again. Under other leadership, I could not be so certain that the night would have ended on such an incredibly high note.
If there is a complaint to be had, it is a difficult one to describe. Simply put, “Passing Strange”, as staged and produced by Antipodes Theatre, would have been far better presented at a large venue, rather than the Meat Markets. Opting for a wide, shallow stage, the venue therefore only allowed for three rows of audience members in quite close proximity to the show. While it may have been intentional, an attempt to make us feel like we were front row at a rock concert, I cannot say that it was enjoyable. To watch part of a scene on one side of the stage was to accept you could not see the other side.
I am going to give the benefit of the doubt here and say that the “unique” staging of the production is the primary reason why the lighting design failed to fulfil its most important role - to illuminate the stars. After all, the lighting that offered the backdrop, and that which highlighted the narrator and mother, all greatly enhanced the show. But regularly the performers were in shadow, and this was especially problematic in more dynamic scenes.
It’s difficult to imagine that the choice of staging and lighting design was creative rather than pragmatic. The production would have been something spectacular to see in a larger venue, ten rows back where I could comfortably see everything and everyone.
It’s a travesty that it took this long for someone in Australia to perform “Passing Strange”, but I am glad that someone was Antipodes Theatre. This production, even with its problematic stage and lighting, still rivals any other musical you could experience this year.