Art, race, past, and present intersect in Passing Strange

A few months after Tyler Michaels gave a breakout performance as the Emcee in Theatre Latte Da's Cabaret, fellow up-and-coming Twin Cities actor Nathan Barlow does the same in Mixed Blood Theatre's new production of Passing Strange.

Playing a young black wannabe rocker on a journey of self-discovery in 1970s Europe, Barlow is magnetic, dominating the show with his strong acting, fluid movement, and engaging voice.

Passing Strange itself is an odd duck of a musical. The piece examines the intersection between a person's art and his personal reality, and the central character — played by Barlow as the Youth and Anthony Manough as the older Narrator — remains very much an emotional enigma through the end.

What the show may lack in traditional narrative drive it makes up for with its throbbing collection of rock 'n' roll tunes. Passing Strange was crafted by Stew — leader of the band the Negro Problem in the 1990s — and Heidi Rodewald.

Stew mined his own early years — growing up in a middle-class African-American neighborhood in Los Angeles and traveling to Europe to find his muse in the late 1970s — for the details of the show. From there, the pair crafted a series of incidents and songs meant to push the envelope and confront the audience with the artifice of not just musical theater but music and art itself.

Manough's Narrator takes us through the Youth's life to date, starting with his bored existence in mid-1970s Los Angeles. He finds inspiration — like a lot of young people in that era — via joints and idle talk about the future. Music becomes his muse, first with a primitive punk-rock band and then on a trip to Amsterdam. He's enchanted by the post-hippie landscape and freedom of a city where hashish is on the coffeeshop menus. He falls in with a group of free thinkers, but isn't able to find his true inspiration.

That leads to a move to the much darker and more chaotic Berlin. The feel-good Dutch vibe is replaced by the harsh anger of a divided city. To fit in, the Youth recreates his back story, becoming a tough product of the South Central streets. While this helps him to fit in, it doesn't draw him any closer to his musical and mental reality.

The show gleefully avoids the usual musical-theater touchstones. There are no great love songs sung between the characters. Instead, the tunes are about taking drugs, having sex, and listening to and making rock 'n' roll. Even with a character that is intentionally a blank slate for much of the show, Barlow drags us into his performance through his talent and sheer force of will. His energy seems to be inexhaustible, even while rushing from one end of the stage to the other.

Manough, in contrast, plays it cool throughout as the more experienced narrator. And while the two share the stage for most of the show, they don't interact until the very end when the two versions of the character meet in the middle to try and answer what our hero's art is all about.

The full cast is electric, led by strong performances by Leroi James in a number of roles, including the gay minister's son who first introduces the Youth to the joys of mind-altering drugs, and Jamecia Bennett as the Youth's long-suffering mother. Thomas W. Jones II directs it all with a deft hand, helping to smooth over some of the more abstract moments and never letting the energy dip throughout the two hours of the show.