Stew always keeps 'em guessing.
Stew has made a career out of it – first with The Negro Problem,
then later as solo artist.  He later confonted all expectations when
his first stab at a musical, 'Passing Strange' had a strong run first
at The Public Theater, then later on Broadway.  Spike Lee was so
impressed that he turned it his latest film.
To coincide with its theatrical release, Stew and his
collaborator Heidi Rodewald led a 12-piece band through a new work
called 'The Broadway Problem' on a hot, muggy night at Lincoln Center
Out Of Doors. 
If you were expecting faithful, dedicated interpretations of Broadway classics, think again.
It was all about not-so subtle tributes and all-out mashups. 
'Nobody' was a nice nod to Bert Williams, the first Black to have a
lead on Broadway and one of the most popular comedians of the early
1900's.  Fats Waller's 'This Joint Is Jumpin' was recast as Jamaican
dance hall (thanks to Bill Bragin for pointing out the double meaning
behind this recasting!).  The Duke Ellington-Billy Strayhorn
composition, 'It Don't Mean A Thing' was juxtaposed quite beautifully
with the bassline from 'Too High' by Stevie Wonder.  The hook of
'Promises, Promises' met with the hook of Sondheim-Bernstein's
'America'.  'Ol Man River' was done as Fishbone-ska clashing with the
chrous of Ike & Tina's version!   The best example of this was 'Big
Black Men' (from The Full Monty) meeting 'Black Boys' (from 'Hair') -
the latter being done as a dramatic (yet hilarious) spoken word piece
by De'Adre Aziza (who's also in 'Passing Strange'.  The night ended
with a show-stopper disco blowout of 'Everything's Coming Up Roses'!
I would be remiss if I didn't mention that mind blowing set that
Tanya Tagaq had to open up the program.  She's an Inuit throat singer
from Northern Canada and she gave a performance that was sensual,
experimental, spiritual yet haunting.  
I'm not sure if the Lincoln Center crowd was fully prepared for
what they got, but I loved it.  The same way that 'Passing Strange' put
a new spin on the musical, 'The Broadway Problem' succeeds in bringing
an irreverent twist to some of Broadway's most beloved tunes. 

'Passing Strange' opens at The IFC Theater on August 21st.  It'll also be on IFC On Demand starting on August 26th. More information here.

Review and photos by Earl Douglas

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