Portland Theatre Scene


August 22, 2014

The thing with musical shows about rock stars is that (surprise) they kind of depend on rock stars. There are no real rock stars in Family Album, the new musical by Stew and Heidi Rodewald now receiving a bright and colorful world premiere at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, though its two creators wield justifiable rock star cred as a result of their stunning first success, Passing Strange (watch it here if you missed it on Broadway). But this time around they’re not actually in the show. And part of the challenge for the audience as we witness this tale of middle age artistic regret and indecision is regarding several of the figures on stage as real rock stars – when they aren’t. Not that any of the musicians here are lacking. As the stand in for Stew, Luqman Brown is a solid and captivating bandleader Heimvey. Casey Scott is a fiercely scowling Claudia (a stand in for Rodewald), the base player and hard-hearted current (or former?) romantic partner of Heimvey. Christian Gibbs is Gibbs, a thin second guitar player with frizzy hair and a 70’s Marlboro man moustache (which appears to be real). Vinnie Sperrazza holds down the drum kit as Charles Andy. And the incredibly dynamic Lawrence Stallings, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Daniel Breaker, who played the central youth character from Passing Strange and keeps hilariously proclaiming “I can’t believe my life!”, is tambourine player Paul. All the players are fine. But at the end of the day they’re not rock stars. And no one is ever going to replace the presence of the real Stew on stage. This is an absence we will feel, particularly during some of the weaker moments between songs.

La Times


July 31, 2014

A few years ago Passing Strange, the Broadway musical by Stew and Heidi Rodewald of the cult pop-rock band Stew & the Negro Problem, marked the life-giving infusion of original songwriting talents to the American theater. They didn’t know how to write traditional songs for a musical, and the theater community, bored to death by what it had sown, couldn’t have been more grateful for their restorative ignorance. Family Album, Stew and Rodewald’s latest collaboration, created with director Joanna Settle for the world premiere at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, confirms that for sheer lyrical ingenuity and contemporary music vitality this duo is top of the musical theater line. Mixing rock and soul with a dash of punk and a dollop of hipster folk, their new score insinuates its way into your body, releasing its joy and making it impossible to remain still. If it’s hard for me to be as enthusiastic for this musical as a whole, it’s because Stew and Rodewald are in desperate need of a book writer to dramatically contain their songwriting fertility. Although Stew won a Tony for the book for Passing Strange, a more structurally disciplined show than Family Album, that musical wasn’t distinguished by its playwriting sophistication either.


August 20, 2014

Negotiating the choppy waters of middle age isn’t easy for anyone, but it’s extra ornery for the almost-famous rock ’n’ rollers in Family Album, the half-marvelous, half-maddening new musical by Stew and Heidi Rodewald (Passing Strange), which is having its premiere here at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Endless nights on the road, grotty club bathrooms, meager pay, fending off (or not) the groupies: It’s all much easier to deal with when you have the resilience of youth and the energy of high ambition to fuel you. Like Passing Strange, which had a brief Broadway run and garnered several Tony nominations, the new musical draws on its authors’ life experience, although, in this case, the writing is less overtly autobiographical, and Stew (who goes by a single name) does not star in the production, which was created in collaboration with the director, Joanna Settle. (Stew and Ms. Rodewald are presumably hard at work on another project, The Total Bent, which comes to the Public Theater next spring.) The long but engaging first act of Family Album focuses on the contrasting fortunes of Heimvey (the likable, laid-back Luqman Brown), the stand-in for Stew, and his ex-girlfriend, Cleo (Miriam A. Laube). Like his creator, Heimvey’s an African-American singer-songwriter carrying a few pounds too many and considerable emotional baggage. As the show begins, Heimvey’s band is playing a New Jersey club, but on the horizon is a much bigger gig: an opening slot at a Madison Square Garden show, the biggest chance this longtime “cult” band has had at breaking through.