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Theater review: Passing Strange 

Multiple gems in Actor's Theatre production

When you come across an original musical whose title is a quote within a Shakespearean quote, you're right to suspect that its creator is a person with a lot to say. Basing his musical on his own artistic development, starting with his middle-class upbringing in L.A. before taking us through his formative sojourns in Amsterdam and Berlin, Stew not only had a lot on his mind in writing the book and lyrics of Passing Strange, he poured himself into delivering it in performance. Stew starred in every production, with co-composer Heidi Rodewald onstage playing in the band, from Sundance Institute to Berkeley to off-Broadway, until he was ready to bring the show to Broadway in early 2008, where he took the Tony Award for Best Book.

Stew is identifying with Othello, the speaker of the title quote, but in an offbeat way. No concern with titanic jealousy here. The Moor of Venice was recounting his courtship of Desdemona, explaining to incredulous white folk how he could be successful in such an endeavor. The quoted phrase is Des' wondrous reaction to Othello's account of his life, his battles, his redemption from slavery and his encounters with cannibals and people whose heads grow beneath their shoulders.

The Youth we're watching as he becomes Stew, learning Stew's life lessons along the way, also tells a fantastical tale that the Berlin women and artistes marvel at, yielding a harvest of sex and acclaim. He is also "passing strange" in a sense that Shakespeare never intended, for the Youth is getting over by depicting himself as an escapee from the dreaded ghettos of the U.S. — instead of the pampered humdrum bourgeois he really is — passing strange at the Nowhaus collective instead of getting exposed as conventional.

We're introduced to the title's new meaning while the Youth is still in L.A. Leaning toward rock and Zen, he peeps into church to appease his mom and experiences a revelation: The roots of rock are in gospel. Continuing to learn and compromise, he joins the church choir, chasing after a high school hottie. The pastor's son heads the choir and, between puffs on an illicit substance, tells the young Tchaikovsky the news: black contemporary artists from the 'burbs need to learn how to pass as black.

Stew looks on, watching his own slick passing, with a mixture of amusement and chagrin — and of course, an artist who has changed his own identity from Mark Stewart to Stew isn't disavowing the expedient of reinventing yourself. That element of a narrator craftily watching himself on his bumbling journey, so vivid on the original cast album and presumably even more vivid when Stew performed live, is allowed to slip away in the current Actor's Theatre of Charlotte production, directed by Chip Decker and starring Jeremy De Carlos.

Passing Strange isn't subtitled "The Stew Musical" as it was on the cast recording, and it seems that Decker wishes us to realize the oneness of Narrator and Youth deep in Act 2 when the Narrator faces his mother after his travels abroad. The confusion is further compounded by the reticence of ATC's cast list, which drops all the useful labeling of the characters we meet in L.A., Amsterdam and Berlin. Nor are we helped by Carrie Cranford's monochromatic costumes, which tend to blur the distinctions between the outré Europeans, muting their individuality.

With all those provisos in mind, I'll say that the music, singing, acting and cavorting in this Stew musical are still as electrifying as ATC's Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson last September — and more. So cool as the heroes of Take Me Out, Crowns, and Natural Selection at ATC, De Carlos is all into the worldly objectivity and the wistful regret of the Narrator and repeatedly all-out and on-fire singing Stew's music, showing some mean guitar-fingering skills along the way. Even as a longtime admirer of De Carlos' meticulous work, I was blown away watching him shatter the fourth wall.

After winning a pair of prestigious awards at the most recent Blumeys, one of which will take him to Broadway and make him miss the final week of the run at E. Stonewall Street, high school phenom Mekhai Lee makes an auspicious professional debut as the Youth. Aside from his soulful singing, Lee's strong suit is conveying Youth's innocence, particularly when he is so totally vamped — rent, weed and love are all free — in Amsterdam. But the rebellious fire and calculating wit that link him to our knowing guide never really showed up.

Ericka Ross as the hero's Mother turns from a target for satire to an object of our sympathy, but not as devastatingly as she should when comedy takes a hairpin turn toward drama. The two sirens that are thrown in Youth's path, the teenage goddess in L.A. and the neo-hippie in Amsterdam, are increasingly enticing in Renee Welsh-Noel's ATC debut, and Kayla Carter does a fine job with two telling young women, a bandmate in L.A. who can't hang with Youth's anti-establishment outlook and Desi, the Berlin girlfriend, den mother and social engineer who sees through Youth's pretenses.

Multiple gems also come from Gerard Hazelton and newcomer John Watson. We get Watson's most artful work as the pastor's deeply flawed and conflicted son, but he's pretty loopy as a "body liberationist" in Amsterdam and downright scary as Mr. Venus, a Berlin performance artist. Hazelton is a hoot, stomping the stage righteously as the pastor before reappearing as a couple of inept artists, a bandmate in L.A. and a hostile militant essayist in Berlin.

Hallie Gray's lighting design, so often unobtrusive in previous outings, grabs your attention here, and Mike Wilkins leads a tight backup quartet from the keyboard in his first stint in Charlotte as music director. It was all so infectious when De Carlos had the audience singing "It's Alright" back to him — we echoed him, jubilantly loud, because what we were singing was such an understatement.

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