Baldwin adds spice to the delicacy known as Stew

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Stew and band The Negro Problem (from left, Art Terry, Mike McGinnis, Stew) in Notes of a Native Son, a musical riff on James Baldwin, at the Curran theatre. Below: Stew and Heidi Rodewald duet on the Curran stage. Photos ©Jim Norrena

Essentially, Notes of a Native Son is a rock show with a literary degree. Ini the words of Stew, the composer (with Heidi Rodewald), this 90-minute show is “not a musical nor a play with music. It’s a song-cycle, a set, a concert, or put squarely, just a buncha songs with banter in between.” And that about sums it up.

But what a description of the show itself can’t convey is the sheer joy, the energy, the alive-ness of the music and feeling created by Stew and his band, the Negro Problem. Stew could make music out of an auto repair manual and make it compelling if he wanted to, but give him a potent topic – like his own autobiography in Passing Strange or, in the case of Notes of a Native Song, the life and work of James Baldwin – and things get really interesting.

Notes, which takes its title from Baldwin’s 1955 collection of essays, is in no way a biography of Baldwin but more of a collage inspired by him, a fantasia on being Baldwin filtered through the being of Stew. What we get is about a dozen songs/poems interspersed with rambling banter in which Stew keeps insisting that this is rock ‘n’ roll and not theater, all performed up close and personal on the stage of the Curran Theatre. The audience is sharing that stage, so when Marty Beller wails on the drum kit as he does on the phenomenal “Poof to Tower,” you feel every vibration from head to toe. This is immersive rock, a personal concert and the kind of literary experience college students can only dream about.

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Enjoyment of Notes of a Native Son does not require extensive knowledge of Baldwin, but it will help. The screen behind the band features “video concepts” by Stew and designer Joan Grossman that often amusingly portray Baldwin’s novels as album covers and Baldwin’s face superimposed on the bodies of, say, George Harrison or Jimi Hendrix. At the top of the show, an animated smoking Baldwin says: “Don’t blame any of this on me. These are Stew’s words. Not mine.” Indeed, early on, at Thursday’s opening show, Stew says the show, which was created for the Harlem Stage on the occasion of Baldwin’s 90th birthday, is really a response to Baldwin.

The first song, “Baldwin Country,” contains some of the show’s most powerful music and lyrics as Stew sings in gratitude of great teachers who introduced him to the work of black writers such as Baldwin. “You taught like you gave a fuck,” he wails. Other songs will go into Baldwin’s expat time in France and Istanbul. One of the more interesting songs addresses Baldwin’s criticism of his mentor, Richard Wright, while others deal with Baldwin works such as Go Tell It on the Mountain and The Amen Corner.

There’s a raw honesty to Stew as a writer and performer. Whatever he chooses to convey is somehow automatically compelling, powerful and laid bare. He’s the center of this magnificent maelstrom, but his band kicks some pretty serious ass as well. Rodewald is on bass, guitars and synth. Beller’s drums beguile. Art Terry brings tremendous feeling on piano and Mike McGinnis in yarmulke and tuxedo, keeps the sound varied and fresh on a variety of wind instruments.

The whole Curran space, the stage, the auditorium and the glorious chandelier, are all part of the zesty lighting design by K.J. Hardy and help blur the line between theater and rock show (is there really a difference? it matters not).

I left Notes of a Native Son charged up and ready to read everything of Baldwin’s I could get my hands on. So don’t mind me. I’ll be over here listening to Stew, locked in Giovanni’s Room – at least until the next Curran: Under Construction, a surprise festival that has suddenly made theatergoing in San Francisco as interesting as it has been in a long, long time.

Stew and the Negro Problem’s Notes of a Native Son continues through Saturday, Dec. 5 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$50. Visit

Come on I wanna Leia: Fisher lands on Broadway

Another week, another Berkeley Repertory Theatre show going to Broadway.

Carrie Fisher’s autobiographical solo show Wishful Drinking, directed by Berkeley Rep artistic director Tony Taccone, will open in October at — where else? — Studio 54, where it runs through Jan. 3. The show is produced by Roundabout Theatre Company in association with Jonathan Reinis, Jamie Cesa, Eva Price, and Berkeley Rep.

This is the fourth show to head from Berkeley to Broadway in the last four years: Sarah Jones’ Bridge & Tunnel (2006), Stew’s Passing Strange (2008), and Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) (2009). It’s also the 12th show in as many years to make the West to East transition. The list includes Danny Hoch’s Taking Over (2008), Ruhl’s Eurydice (2007), Tony Kushner and Maurice Sendak’s Brundibar (2006), Naomi Iizuka’s 36 Views (2002), Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses (2001), Hoch’s Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop (1998), Anne Galjour’s Alligator Tales (1997), and Philip Kan Gotanda’s Ballad of Yachiyo (1997).

“This is the culmination of a long process,” Taccone said in a statement. “Berkeley Rep has a history of developing new work and, with our commissioning program, continues its commitment to bring fresh ideas and alternative viewpoints to the stage. I am pleased with the success of this project, and honored to collaborate with all of the people involved to bring this show to Broadway. It has been truly gratifying in recent years to see our shows reach a wider audience in New York, Los Angeles, London, and other cities.”

Visit for Wishful Drinking ticket information.

Spike Lee to film `Passing Strange’ reports that filmmaker Spike Lee is so taken with Stew’s Broadway musical Passing Strange that he has raised money to film the show concert style. Here’s the short news item:

Spike Lee is going to Broadway. The Oscar-nominated writer/director will be spending part of his July filming the Tony-winning production Passing Strange. Lee will film the musical by singer/songwriter Stew over the course of a weekend, shooting two shows with audiences and then a third one without. (He did a similar thing with his 2000 concert film The Original Kings of Comedy.) Passing Strange’s producers are financing the production, and while no distribution deal has been set, sources believe it will air on cable television upon completion. The musical centers on a young black musician who sets off on a journey to find “the real” after being raised in a church-going middle-class Los Angeles neighborhood. It was originally developed at the Sundance Institute Theatre Lab.

Of course, Bay Area audiences know that isn’t the whole story. The musical had its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in Ocotober, 2006 (a co-production with New York’s Public Theater), and we’ve been Stew fans ever since.

When Lee fell for the show, he fell hard. Here’s a letter he wrote on the Passing Strange MySpace page:

Dear Theatergoer,

Can you deal with the real?

At The Public Theater last spring, I saw a musical called Passing Strange. I was so moved and inspired I went back a second time with the quickness. Now due to popular and critical demand, Passing Strange is moving uptown.

I’m writing to urge you to go see it, as this fresh musical is an unstoppable force of energy, music and mayhem, just what Broadway needs.

The creation of a visionary artist named Stew, a phenomenal singer-songwriter from South Central LA by way of Amsterdam and Berlin, it’s the story of a young black man on a journey of self-discovery. But the pure rock energy, Soul, profound humanity and brilliant cast are the elements that make Passing Strange unforgettable.

The New Yorker called it “a finely-crafted American musical.” And New York Magazine hailed it as “a new musical that amazing! actually feels relevant.” Sometimes the critics get it right.

Not the first groundbreaking Broadway hit to get its start at The Public Theater (Hair, A Chorus Line, Noise…Funk), but you can be among the first to see this next big thing. So check out the discount offer. Then go see Passing Strange and tell them Spike sent you.

Yours truly,
Spike Lee

For more information, visit

Great American musical roundup


We have a tradition here at Theater Dogs, and that is to commemorate the Fourth of July by celebrating the greatest American art form: the musical.

It was an interesting year on Broadway for new musicals. Below are reviews of cast albums for three of them (I passed on Little Mermaid because I love the movie soundtrack from Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman so much that I don’t really want to hear how Ashman’s brilliance was diluted by someone else attempting to fill his shoes; and I had previously reviewed, and hated, Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein and Xanadu). There’s also a classic American musical revival below and a pop album by current Broadway star, Kelli O’Hara.

Passing Strange: The Stew Musical ($18.97, Ghostlight Records)

Recorded live from the Belasco Theatre, this original cast recording captures everything the Bay Area fell in love with when the show had its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Stew’s rock score is alternately rousing and mesmerizing. Brilliantly performed by the cast, this album has the distinction of being the first Broadway cast album to be released online first (you can find it at iTunes). It won’t be released in three dimensions until July 15. Recording live was a stroke of brilliance because the audience reaction fuels the experience of the music, especially during the more humorous songs.

My one complaint is that some of the songs ramble. The repetition grows wearisome on some tracks. But that’s a minor quibble. This is a thoroughly enjoyable listening experience with a you-are-there feel that pulses with energy.

In the Heights ($21.98, Ghostlight Records)

I haven’t seen the show, but one listen to this double-album set convinced me that it would go on to win the Tony Award for best score (for Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also stars) and for best musical. This is joyous music that incorporates rap, hip-hop, salsa, pop and more traditional Broadway sounds for a highly pleasing patchwork of songs. Miranda’s rapping is intelligent and humorous, which will go a long way toward not alienating Broadway audience members who might not care for rap while pleasing those who do.

Favorite tracks include the boffo opening number (“In the Heights”), the catchy “Piragua”, Mandy Gonzalez’s “Breathe” and the beautiful “Champagne” (by Gonzalez and Miranda). The recording quality is superb, and though there are hints of Rent here and there, In the Heights comes across on record as a true original.

A Catered Affair ($19.98, PS Classics)

A fan of composer John Bucchino’s, I was eagerly awaiting the cast album for this modest musical about a Bronx family that works itself into a frenzy over the daughter’s impending wedding (the daughter wants to elope, the mother, perhaps attempting to make up for her less-than-wonderful wedding, wants a blow-out).

The first impression from the album is that Faith Prince is amazing as Aggie, the mother. Her solos, “Our Only Daughter” and “Coney Island,” are superb, as is her duet with Leslie Kritzer as daughter Janey. Kritzer and Matt Cavenaugh as Ralph, the fiancé, shine on the duet “Don’t Ever Stop Saying `I Love You,'” which is the score’s standout song. Jonathan Tunick’s delicate orchestrations are gorgeous, and Bucchino’s songs are more about heart and storytelling than about big Broadway moments.

The jarring element of the album is Harvey Fierstein, who adapted the book from previous scripts by Paddy Chayefsky and Gore Vidal. Fierstein wrote himself a role as Aggie’s brother, Winston, and if you know the cast album of Hairspray, you know that Fierstein is more personality than vocal star. In a big splashy musical comedy, Fierstein is just fine. Here, he sticks out and causes little flinches here and there.

South Pacific: The New Broadway Cast Recording ($18.98, Sony Classical)

Gorgeous, wonderful, inspiring – there’s not much left to say about this fantastic cast recording of the Tony-winning Lincoln Center hit – the first Broadway revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1949 classic.

Kelli O’Hara is a vibrant, honey-voiced Nellie Forbush, and Paulo Szot, with his gorgeous bass baritone, imbues songs such as “Some Enchanted Evening” and “This Is How It Feels” (cut from the original, now a duet with O’Hara) with commanding, sexy power. Matthew Morrison provides a touching “Younger Than Springtime” and a forthright “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.”

Robert Russell Bennett’s original orchestrations are brilliantly realized by musical director Ted Sperling. I’ll always love the original Mary Martin-Ezio Pinza recording, but this revival disc is a welcome addition to the library.

Wonder in the World, Kelli O’Hara ($16.98, Ghostlight Records)

Speaking of Kelli O’Hara, in addition to starring in a hit show, she has a new solo CD arranged and orchestrated by her Pajama Game co-star Harry Connick Jr. (and produced by longtime Connick collaborator Tracey Freeman). There are a couple show tunes – “Fable” from Light in the Piazza, which O’Hara was in, but she didn’t sing this song, “I Have Dreamed” from The King and I and “Make Someone Happy” from Do Re Mi – but this is mostly a sweet pop album. There are three Connick tunes, including the duet title song, which is fantastic, and some James Taylor (“Fire and Rain”), Don McLean (“And I Love You So”) and Billy Joel (“And So It Goes”). There are also some O’Hara originals: “Here Now” and “I Love You the World.” There’s even a song from O’Hara’s husband, Greg Naughton (“The Sun Went Out”). It’s all pretty great because O’Hara is such a solid singer – effortless and compassionate. She may not be belting about being in love with a wonderful guy here, but she impresses with her skill, charm and warmth.

And can we just give a shout out to Ghostlight Records and PS Classics? If it weren’t for them, we’d be well short of the show tunes we love. Please keep up the good work. Please.

Missing the Tonys

For the last four days I’ve been in Ashland, Ore., reviewing shows at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for the San Francisco Chronicle (more on that later), and while the Tonys were on Sunday night, I was at the opening of a new musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors. Of course I’ll watch the whole awards show on TiVo when I get home, but I was able to catch glimpses here and there (thanks to the spotty online coverage), and of course I couldn’t wait to find out the winners.

I must say I’m disappointed that Passing Strange only one award (for best book of a musical). I guess I’m feeling territorial because the show had its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Still, it’s better than nothing. Here’s what co-creator and star Stew had to say about his win:

“Music is something that comes easy to me, and I’ve received numerous accolades for my songs – but to be honored for my writing means a whole hell of a lot, especially when it comes from theatre people for whom words really mean something. Those words took shape at Berkeley Rep, a place that makes space for people like me to take risks and try out things that theatre isn’t used to seeing. We loved working there, and we miss that Berkeley scene.”

More on the Tonys later. In the meantime, here’s a complete list of winners:

Play (and playwrights): “August: Osage County” (Tracy Letts).

Musical: “In the Heights.”

Book-Musical: “Passing Strange” (Stew).

Original Score (music and/or lyrics): “In the Heights” (Music & Lyrics: Lin-Manuel Miranda).

Revival-Play: “Boeing-Boeing.”

Revival-Musical: “South Pacific.”

Actor-Play: Mark Rylance, “Boeing-Boeing.”

Actress-Play: Deanna Dunagan, “August: Osage County.”

Actor-Musical: Paulo Szot, “South Pacific.”

Actress-Musical: Patti LuPone, “Gypsy.”

Featured Actor-Play: Jim Norton, “The Seafarer.”

Featured Actress-Play: Rondi Reed, “August: Osage County.”

Featured Actor-Musical: Boyd Gaines, “Gypsy.”

Featured Actress-Musical: Laura Benanti, “Gypsy.”

Direction-Play: Anna D. Shapiro, “August: Osage County.”

Direction-Musical: Bartlett Sher, “South Pacific.”

Choreography: Andy Blankenbuehler, “In the Heights.”

Orchestrations: Alex Lacamoire and Bill Sherman, “In the Heights.”

Scenic Design-Play: Todd Rosenthal, “August: Osage County.”

Scenic Design-Musical: Michael Yeargen, “South Pacific.”

Costume Design-Play: Katrina Lindsay, “Les Liaisons Dangereuses.”

Costume Design-Musical: Catherine Zuber, “South Pacific.”

Lighting Design-Play: Kevin Adams, “The 39 Steps.”

Lighting Design-Musical: Donald Holder, “South Pacific.”

Sound Design-Play: Mic Pool, “The 39 Steps.”

Sound Design-Musical: Scott Lehrer, “South Pacific.”

Previously announced:

Regional Theater Tony Award: Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

Special Tony Award: Robert Russell Bennett.

Lifetime Achievement Award: Stephen Sondheim.