Alt-Rock Musical Plays Favorite to Tonys

For McCann, that "something" was Stew. "I thought he was a wonderful and original artist," she said, adding that she was especially impressed by his use of language. "There are phrases in the musical that stay in your head."

Like Feingold, McCann also sees relevant messages in "Passing Strange."

"Sure it's about your roots and going home. But I think the most compelling moment in the play is when the mother says to Stew, 'You went your own way and that's all right,'" she said. "None of us end up doing what our parents expect. That moment when your parents say it doesn't matter, everything turned out OK. That's the moment of ultimate acceptance of a parent to a child."

Such themes strike a chord with audience members. "I'm still processing it," said Brittany Ishibashi, a 27-year-old actress from West Hollywood, Calif., whose TV appearances include "Grey's Anatomy" and "The Office." "It's a beautifully framed family story. It's about how family is a strong support system."

The play resonates with all audiences, and is drawing a mixture of people of different races and backgrounds, McCann said.

Stew said fans have helped him to see the play in new ways. While mother-son and quest-for-self-identity themes were always apparent to him, Stew said the responses he's getting from older people, especially women, have shed a new light on things. "It's so humbling and heartening to have some lady who looks like your grandmother tell me that she did some of the same things," he said. "These older women are saying this is my story. I got out there. I did my own thing. I'm glad to see it onstage."

Another aspect that makes this coming-of-age rock musical, well, rock, is its fresh approach. "Our director tried to base a lot of the show on the strength that she knew Heidi and I had as rock musicians," Stew explained. "So instead of trying to turn what we do into a musical, she tried to turn the theater into what we do at our rock clubs."

Director Annie Dorsen did not stick to the script of a typical musical format. Instead, she left room for improvisation. "There are many places in the play where I can do whatever I want. It's completely different from night to night," Stew said. "There are monologues where I can say different things. There are song endings that I can make anywhere from one minute to five minutes. That keeps it fresh."

The result is a transformative experience. "The actors have become more like rock musicians, and the band has become more like actors," he said. "In reality, 'Passing Strange' is a rock show, and rock shows respond to the moment. They respond to the audience. They respond to how they feel that day."

Case in point: Last month, when cast members delivered an electrifying performance of two songs at The Village Voice's Obie Awards ceremony, several judges were among those roused out of their seats to dance along. "Kind of tells you something about the show's spirit and the infectious delight of its music," said Feingold, Obies' committee chairman. The rock-musical picked up two Obies.

Despite the hectic pace of life these days, Stew seems thrilled by his rock musical's success, particularly the Tony nods. Yet, in the midst of it all, he maintains his cool Californian demeanor and ironic sense of humor.

"This train we've been on is going so fast I don't have time to reflect," he said. "I'll be able to say for the rest of my life that I'm a Tony-nominated actor. That's crazy. What can I say after that? It's great to put on your job application."

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