Rock musical ‘Passing Strange”’ gets Midwest premier

By Matt Watson

In a rare combination of rock ’n’ roll and musical theater, “Passing Strange” forced audience members out of their seats to jam along with the music at its Broadway premiere in 2008. With rave reviews from critics and a twist on traditional theater, the show is moving on to the Second City.

The Bailiwick Chicago theater company will produce the Midwest premiere of the Tony Award-winning rock musical beginning on April 21. The show, which features Chicago band JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound, runs through May 29 and will kick off Bailiwick’s second season by casting a rock band as well as actors.

Mark Stewart, who goes by the stage name “Stew,” wrote the story about growing up in Los Angeles and the trials he encountered. Stewart gave Bailiwick creative freedom to produce the musical.

“Stew gave us carte blanche to do whatever we wanted with the show,” said Kevin Mayes, Bailiwick’s executive director. “He told us it would be ridiculous to re-enact it as he did on Broadway, and that we should just own it. That gave us incredible freedom.”

“Passing Strange” tells the story of a young African-American man growing up in LA who decides he needs to get out of the city and discover himself. This leads him to travel across Europe to explore his musical talents.

“It’s a coming-of-age story,” said Jayson Brooks, lead singer of JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound. “On the inside, it’s about relationships and about [the main character] learning to be a more full, better artist by being himself.”

Lili-Anne Brown, director of “Passing Strange,” chose it to launch Bailiwick’s second season after she stumbled upon it while browsing Netflix. Director Spike Lee recorded the Broadway performance of the musical and made it into a DVD. After watching it, Brown said she was instantly sold on the idea.

“Once I saw it, that was the end of that,” she said. “I could not believe what I was seeing, especially because I was like, ‘I know someone [who] could do that!’ I

was electrified.”

The group she was referring to was JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound. Brown contacted Brooks immediately and asked if he’d ever heard of the show. Coincidentally, Brooks said he’d been dreaming of doing the show for quite some time.

“She texted me out of the blue and said, ‘You’d be perfect for this.’ I said, ‘Yeah, right,’” Brooks said. “A couple of months later, we’re in rehearsal.”

Brown said the challenge of putting on “Passing Strange” was the fact that they needed a rock band whose lead singer also had theater experience. Brooks, who had been an actor before he started the Uptown Sound, was a perfect fit, Brown said.

Mayes said the musical was attractive to Bailiwick because the themes of the story represented the company’s quest. As a new collective, as the group calls itself, Bailiwick is also maturing in its second season.

“All the shows we’re producing this year have something to do with exploring self-identity and self-image,” Mayes said. “This sort of details us as a company. This is our second year, and we’re asking ourselves, ‘Who are we really?’”

According to Mayes, Bailiwick strives to put on shows that have not been done in the city or give old shows a unique twist.

“We will never produce a show, ever, that someone could say, ‘Oh, that looked a lot like somebody else’s production,’” Mayes said. “It will be our unique take on it. We’re all about reinventing the classics and bringing in new work.”

Brown said Bailiwick made a profit on all but one of its first season shows, which helped launch such a strong second season.

“To start a theater company is like being born in the wild,” Brown said. “If it makes it past its infancy, which most won’t, then it stands a chance.”

The show will be a defining moment for the young Bailiwick crew, Brooks said. “Passing Strange” combines groups of fans who would normally not interact.

“It’s going to be like comparing a Pentecostal service to a Catholic Mass,” Brooks said. “It’s bringing elements of live music and theater together. People who see live music shout stuff, and people who see theater tend to clap at the end of songs or appropriate places. I’m hoping I can get theatergoers to participate and come out of their comfort zone and into a more interactive show.”