Set in the late seventies, “Passing Strange” follows Youth, a young African American musician, travelling from sheltered middle-class South-Central Los Angeles to real Amsterdam and Berlin in search of life’s meaning and his purpose within it. This show is about our hero’s existential as much as geographical journey across Europe. It’s a rock concert about art, family, identity, realness, regrets, grief, and love. 

A narrator guides the audience through the protagonist's soul-searching arc. Originally played by the creator of the show himself, Stew Stewart, the role is now performed by Giles Terera with loads of charisma, incredible stage presence and heart. Even without a guitar, he is a rock star. The Young Vic is transformed into a rock church (set designed by Ben Stones and video by Will Duke) where our pastor comically comments on the main action and shares his wisdom with his congregation. There’s plenty of banter with the incredible band on stage (Musical direction by Jerome Van Den Berghe - Pete Billington, Ikechukwu Onwuagbu and JT Taylor) bringing the “meta” element of this autobiographical musical. 

The rest of the cast is equally exceptionally talented: Keenan Munn-Francis effortlessly embodies Youth’s various attempts to adapt to his surroundings and passionately channels the hero’s angst and urgency. David Albury, Nadia Violet Johnson, Renée Lamb, and Caleb Roberts form a fantastically eclectic ensemble, playing several roles including the pastor’s son, choir kids, Amsterdam’s artists, and Berlin’s rebels with specificity and playfulness. Rachel Adedeji’s Mother gracefully delivers the heart and soul of the show. It’s pure joy watching this cast share the stage under Liesl Tommy’s direction.

The music by Stew Stewart and Heidi Rodewald is rock-infused with soul and blues. While, at times, it vaguely echoes shows like “Rent” and “Hair”, it has a unique identity that boldly refuses to deliver showstopping Broadway numbers (there’s a specific pun in the script addressing this). The score flows more like a rock soul-searching collective monologue, in true sung-through storytelling fashion. I’m glad to see so many shows that push the boundaries of musical theatre writing being staged and gaining recognition (“Hadestown” is playing at the Lyric Theatre and “Next to Normal” is coming to the West End next month after a sold-out run at “Donmar Warehouse”). 

“Passing Strange” is wildly entertaining but it’s ultimately led by very pressing serious questions: “why don’t you find a job instead of finding yourself?”. What is real? What is love? It’s a tribute to art and the power of creation. A gift but maybe also a curse. Both a channel to our authentic humanity and an act of fiction that shields us from other people. “Only art can correct life’s mistakes.” It’s a crazy trip. It’s a celebration of life. One you don’t want to miss. 


Passing Strange is at the Young Vic Theatre until 6 July 2024. Tickets: here. 


Review: Francesco Pagnoncelli   Photo: Marc Brenner