PASSING STRANGE

by DICK KEREKES & LEISLA SANSOM
Players by the Sea is presenting a unique drama/comedy musical on stage in their black box Studio Theatre entitled “Passing Strange.” It runs through May 4th, in the 80-seat theatre. Reservations are a must, so call 249-0289.
Player’s motto, which can be found on its promotional material, is “Expect the Unexpected.” And while they’ve lived up to this promise many, many times over the past years, they’ve exceeded far beyond expectations with this production.
If you have seen a show in the studio theatre in the past, you will be surprised and delighted at the renovations and setting for this musical. Set Designers Brian Grant and Director Barbara Colaciello combined their talents to surround patrons with visual magic. The walls on either side are no longer black but a wine color that blends with the effects on stage. The conventional furniture used in the production is limited to four wooden chairs. A curved stage that looks very much like a giant boa constrictor circles around creating spaces for the musicians and an area for the talented actors to move with the music. A new lighting system added a fabulous light show.
“Passing Strange” opened on Broadway in 2008 and was nominated for seven Tony Awards, winning the one for best book. It was awarded Best Musical by the New York Drama Critics Circle.
The show was written by a celebrated musician, Stew, and tells the story of his life in twenty-four songs composed with orchestrations by Heidi Rodewald. Stew is the stage name of Mark Stewart who tells us about his search for his identity both musically and spiritually. It is a musical journey that takes us from the home of his single mother in South Los Angeles to Amsterdam and then on to Berlin. Antoinette Johnson plays the mother with the perfection she brought to her award-winning role as Aunt Ester in PBTS’s “Gem of the Ocean” for which she won a Best Actress Award.
There are actually two Stews in this play; a narrator who relates the story of his formative years in song and speech, and a youth who lives those experiences on stage. Stew the narrator is played by Dewitt Cooper III in his theatre debut in this area. Mr. Cooper teaches musical theatre at Douglas Anderson and brings an impressive resume that includes the Broadway national tour of ‘’In The Heights.” Stew the youth is played by Steve Anderson, Jr. who most recently was in “Five Guys Named Moe” on the PBTS stage. Certainly one of our most popular local actors, he also has an impressive resume that includes musical roles in “ Spunk” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’ “ and dramatic roles in “Fahrenheit 451“ and “Julius X”.
Director Colaciello has assembled a truly brilliant and outstanding cast, all of whom we have enjoyed in other shows locally over the years.
Kerri J. Alexander plays several roles, including the Youth’s main squeeze in Berlin. If you saw her in the original musical “Another Sign” at the Wilson Center as “Lady Rita” you know she has a marvelous voice.
Jocelyn Geronimo, in addition to playing several roles, can also be found on the synthesizer with the band. We remember Jocelyn from her role as “Christmas Eve” in the PBTS hit musical “Avenue Q”. Ms. Geronimo also appeared in the “King and I” at the Alhambra.
David Girard’s versatility is evident in several roles, including as a preacher in Act I, and Mr. Venus, a scary West Berlin protestor in Act II. We recall his blockbuster performance in “The Full Monty”, quite a contrast to his dramatic work in “Gem of the Ocean” and “Julius X.”
Janaye Rogers also plays multiple roles, and was last seen on the Players main stage as Gary Coleman in “Avenue Q”. As critics, one of our favorite peformances was the first we saw, when she was a wonderful Juliet in Theatre Jacksonville’s “Romeo and Juliet”.
J’royce Walton rounds out this cast, and appears in a number of roles. The most impressive was as Franklin, a gay closeted church leader, and the most humorous role in the musical. Mr. Walton is a graduate of Douglas Anderson School of the Arts and is headed to the Joffrey Ballet School in New York soon. The most memorable role we remember this talented young man for was his performance of the song “The Viper” in “Ain’t Misbehavin’” a couple of seasons ago.
This cast is backed by the accomplished five-piece band led by the Musical Director Bryant Miano, who also often sang while playing keyboard. While most of the music is rock (with a bit of blues, jazz, gospel , and punk mixed in), the music never overpowered the singers. The additional band members are Mark Williams (Guitar), Noel Millan (Drums), Mike Feeley (Bass) and as previously mentioned, Jocelyn Geronimo on Synthesizer.
Ron Shreve’s costume designs captured the era and ambiance of each of the locations from LA to Berlin.
Director Colaciello and award winning Choreographer Alejandro Rodriquez have captured the distinctiveness of “Passing Strange” with perfect interactions of the characters. “Passing Strange” is an extraordinary universal story of a young man finding his way in life.
As a side note; “Passing Strange” is not without a Jacksonville connection. Douglas Anderson graduate Daniel Beaker played the part of Youth on Broadway and won an Obie Award for Best Actor. Mr. Beaker went on to win a Tony for his peformance as the donkey in “Shrek the Musical”.
The opening night reception was catered by Eva’s Grill and Bar, a popular Jacksonville Beach restaurant. It was delicious. They offer a special pre-show dinner on Friday and Saturday evenings before the show. Call 904-372-0484 for more information.

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