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'Passing Strange' musical brings it all back home to L.A. -- via TV

January 28, 2010 |  5:00 am


"Passing Strange" may be an L.A. story, rising from an appealing chapter in the history of L.A.’s indie-rock scene, but until now the hometown public has had to settle for the original cast CD and reports echoing from stages in Berkeley and the Big Apple.

The acclaimed rock musical by Stew and Heidi Rodewald, who rose to appreciation, if not exactly fame, as the singer-guitarist and bassist of the L.A. band the Negro Problem, will pass at last before Angeleno eyes Thursday from 8:30 to 11 p.m., as KCET gives Spike Lee’s film of the Broadway show its wide Southern California television premiere (it had a single screening last August to open the Downtown L.A. Film Festival).

The script, which netted Stew (the stage name of Mark Stewart)  a Tony award last year for best book of a musical, is a liberally fictionalized treatment of his own early days as a middle-class black kid smitten by punk rock and French New Wave cinema. In the show, whose songs Stew wrote with Rodewald, his alter ego lights out for Europe to blaze his path as a budding artiste, only to be called back home sadder and maybe wiser. Stew plays a central role as the onstage singing and guitar-playing narrator and commenter on the action, while Daniel Breaker plays his younger self. Rodewald is part of the band that’s half-sunk into holes in the stage like musical prairie dogs.

The play premiered at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2006, transferred to an off-Broadway staging at the Public Theatre the following year, and moved to Broadway and ran for five months during 2008.

Lee loved the show and filmed two performances of the staging by its director and co-creator, Annie Dorsen; after it closed, he reconvened the ensemble and band without an audience to get additional footage. After film distributors passed, PBS snapped it up for its "Great Performances" series.

It’ll be interesting to see whether an L.A. theater company ever produces “Passing Strange,” either with Stew (who lives in Berlin), or an actor in his stead.

-- Mike Boehm


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Photo: Stew has the mike in scene from "Passing Strange." Credit: David Lee