Given the vagaries of live performance, an ability to roll with the punches is an all-important theater skill.
There are few blows more devastating to a musical than when a lead performer falls ill. That’s what happened Sunday when Davron S. Monroe, one of the finest singers in Boston theater, informed the audience before a matinee performance of “Passing Strange” by Moonbox Productions that he had laryngitis.
But Monroe, his fellow cast members, and director Arthur Gomez rallied to overcome that obstacle with a little ingenuity, a lot of professionalism, and the always-vital ingredients of verve and skill. What resulted was an outstanding performance under the circumstances — perhaps under any circumstances.
Created by the singer-songwriter-playwright Stew, “Passing Strange” is a semi-autobiographical musical about a young Black songwriter — identified only as Youth and deftly played at Moonbox by Ivan C. Walks — who leaves his middle-class Los Angeles home and journeys to Amsterdam and Berlin in search of what he calls “the real.”
“Passing Strange” is fundamentally a quest narrative wrapped within a variety of musical styles, from gospel to punk to blues to jazz to rock. (Stew, who wrote the book and lyrics, co-composed the score with Heidi Rodewald.) As with most such narratives, the protagonist’s journey has less to do with geographical ground covered than with interior truths unearthed; less to do with adventure per se than with explorations of identity, including racial identity.
The musical takes that journey and that search seriously, but “Passing Strange” is also enlivened by the amount of room it makes for cultural satire.
Because of its fast-flowing, impressionistic structure, the Narrator — played by Monroe — serves as vital connective tissue. When laryngitis struck, Gomez stepped in on short notice as a vocal substitute, singing the Narrator’s songs from a chair just offstage as Monroe lip-synced the lyrics onstage. (A Moonbox spokesperson said the hope is that he will be back to form by the next performance, on Thursday.)
For those of us in the (lamentably small) audience Sunday, the setup took some getting used to, but it was less obtrusive than you might expect. For one thing, laryngitis couldn’t diminish Monroe’s magnetic stage presence. (He was able to speak his lines of dialogue.) For another, while not in Monroe’s league, Gomez proved a capable and robust vocalist, reading from a lyric sheet and singing into a hand mic.
Most important of all was the alacrity with which the other six members of the cast rose to the occasion, carrying the production to success. Literally and figuratively, they didn’t miss a beat, from Maria Hendricks’s piercing performance as Youth’s mother to indelible work in a variety of roles by Yewande Odetoyinbo (as ever), Anthony Pires Jr., Soneka Anderson, and Chantal Tribble.
Accompanied by a four-piece onstage band, the cast delivered dynamic performances of two dozen songs, some of whose titles suggest Youth’s rites of passage (”We Just Had Sex,” “Work the Wound,” “Identity”). Music is Youth’s lodestar, the means by which he processes meaning, so his mother’s attempts to get him involved in their community’s Baptist church are doomed from the start. When she asks “Don’t you know the difference between the sacred and the profane?,” he replies: “I can’t hear the difference.”
Once he gets to Amsterdam, Youth experiments with sexual freedom, and when he tires of Amsterdam (”Paradise is a bore,” he says), it’s off to Berlin, where he falls in with a hyper-intense collective of self-serious German performance artists. Stew seizes the opportunity to parody avant-garde pretentiousness, always a juicy target. Earlier, there’s a brief but priceless riff on the brooding protagonists of French New Wave films.
“Passing Strange” does not let its own protagonist off the hook. He misrepresents his upbringing as impoverished in order to gain currency with the politically hard-edged denizens of Berlin, and there’s a self-consciousness to his restless cultural explorations, an awareness that when, say, he sits in a European café, the same thing was done by the legendary likes of James Baldwin. “The whole [expletive] world is my multi-media spectacle,” he says.
Youth is trying to find himself within that noisy and teeming spectacle. But one of the intriguing questions that quietly courses underneath “Passing Strange” is whether he ultimately ends up, after all his wandering, with anything more “real” than what he left behind.
Book and lyrics by Stew. Music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald. Created in collaboration with Annie Dorsen. Presented by Moonbox Productions. At Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts. Through Jan. 1. Tickets $65. 617-933-8600 or moonboxproductions.org