“Travels with My Angst” might be a good subtitle for the sassy if self-indulgent autobiographical musical Passing Strange. New Repertory Theatre scores one of the few productions so far of the show (at the Arsenal Center for the Arts through May 21), which won a 2008 Tony for its book, not to star its creator, the musician/songwriter/playwright Stew. On Broadway and during the show’s development, the co-composer/lyricist/librettist played the Narrator looking back, with heart on sleeve but tongue in cheek, on his coming of age in 1970s LA, Amsterdam, and Berlin. I’m sure Passing Strange loses something when separated from its single-named, multi-talented source — and it can’t be easy finding a middle-aged African-American performer who can act, sing, play electric bass, and impersonate Stew. New Rep fields Cliff Odle, who isn’t outstanding at any of those assignments but has the requisite ironic gravitas. Still, for all its arguable clichés and that spot of amateurism at the center, this remains a likable show, put across at New Rep by Cheo Bourne as the younger Stew — who’s called Youth — and an energetic supporting cast.
Passing Strange takes its name from Desdemona’s reaction to Othello’s exotic and harrowing life story: “She swore, in faith, ’twas strange, ’twas passing strange.” Stew’s tale is tamer than Othello’s: a rebellion against middle-class, Church-dominated life amid the palm trees in the form of an odyssey that took the performer, in pursuit of “the real,” first to the freewheeling shangri-la of Amsterdam, then to the dour avant-garde arts scene of a Berlin still steeped in the Cold War. Along the way, Youth does some strange passing of his own, that including a stint when he posed as a ghetto warrior despite his comfortable childhood.
Kate Warner’s now slinky, now frenetic production for New Rep captures the fun poked at the journey better than it does the intensity of a trip that taught the traveler the consequences of letting love take a back seat to the ruthless pursuit of art and authenticity. But Stew’s book and lyrics are quite droll. And the music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald, for all its nose sniffing at Broadway, includes a couple of sweet show tunes (among them “Amsterdam” and “Keys”) as well as a passage through gospel, punk, blues, and rock. There’s even a quote from My Fair Lady and nods to A Chorus Line and Kurt Weill. The show may be set up like a concert, with metal scaffolding, flashing lights, and a five-piece on-stage band that includes the Narrator. But it will more engage than rock you.