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.
What was striking about "Passing Strange," which was created in collaboration with director Annie Dorsen, was the way the lyrics were fastened to diverse rock melodies that together told the story of the evolution of an African American musician's eclectic sensibility.
The semi-autobiographical work about a Los Angeles artist bearing an uncanny resemblance to Stew spurned racial and artistic clichés with satiric wit and a degree of pique that even when politically incorrect failed to offend because of its introspective candor and cleverness.
Stew and Rodewald aren't in the cast of "Family Album," but their character stand-ins are immediately identifiable. Heimvey (Luqman Brown) is the leader of the Putney Swopes, a band that has a cult following but not much fame or money. Claudia (Casey Scott) is the bass player, his closest confidant and a snappish reality check on his narcissistic ego.
They're "a split couple living in a house of music," as Claudia puts it, which might also apply to Stew and Rodewald, who have maintained a creative partnership after their romantic relationship ended several years ago.
"Family Album" is about the close and often confounding ties of band members in the middle of their careers. It's about the way they configure and reconfigure themselves into a family — as dysfunctional as any other — as sexual love morphs into a more durable bond and fatigue sets in after so many years of chasing the dream on the road.
The first act revolves around the band's big break — they've been invited to open for the Vomit Puppies, a brash young band with a teen following, at Madison Square Garden. Heimvey, who bunks with his band at his ex-girlfriend's posh Brooklyn brownstone (decorated for the occasion in the exact manner of their old L.A. loft), clucks that he's not sure if he has the subway fare for the gig. As self-sabotaging as he is ambitious, he has everyone on tenterhooks that he's going to bail at the last minute.
But this story line transforms into an exploration of communal living, as Heimvey and Cleo (Miriam A. Laube), a performance artist and former band member married to another former band member turned finance guy, Norman (Alex Emanuel), confront their past and present feelings for each other. A utopian domestic experiment takes hold in the second act, after a change of fortune occurs for Heimvey that is a tasty parody of our social media age.
Living together with Cleo and Norman's tantrum-throwing kid, Thelonious Samson (played by the adult Daniel T. Parker with careening vigor), Heimvey proposes that he'll take on the role of "music daddy" while Norman continues to serve as "money daddy."
Stew's book doesn't stint on what might be described as self-critique, but neither Claudia nor Cleo is fully drawn — one is dominated by her anger toward Heimvey, the other is dominated by her concern for him. (Scott's Claudia, played with a permanent sneer, comes up especially short.)
There is no shortage of themes here — love, creativity, selling out and the elasticity of family. But plots are superimposed on plots like a stencil exercise. What's more, dialogue isn't Stew's strong suit, so it's a relief when the characters turn to song even if the songs don't so much advance the story as dilate on a motif.
Take the number "Sexy Brooklyn Mami," with its amusing riff establishing Cleo's milieu but not much else: "Yackin' on your i-Phone as you order a latte/Blocking doorways with your stroller Mami/Oh but you look so good today…."
Or consider the ditty that Thelonious writes about a gay Ken doll, a cute song that doesn't do more than broaden the musical's sexual bohemianism: "They always stick me with Barbie/Oh but I want them to know/I'd prefer GI Joe/But any able-bodied man-doll/would surely do."
But why complain when the music sounds so good, with Christian Gibbs on guitar and Vinnie Sperrazza on drums adding rocker authenticity to the mix. Lawrence Stallings notably contributes soaring vocals and comic finesse. And credit goes also to Marika Hughes and Dana Lyn for widening the score's instrumental scope.
Would "Family Album" work better as a sung-through song cycle? I think there needs to be a libretto, but it should be less obtrusive and more along the lines of David Neumann's choreography, which is fluid and inventive but content to remain almost subliminal.
Stew should follow his unconventional genius and work with a writer who can guide him in a direction that is not confining yet structured. A collaborator not beholden to tradition but one who understands that freedom is born from dramatic rigor. Someone, in short, who wouldn't cut the bracingly amusing number "Black Men Ski" but would integrate it more effectively into the musical's overarching story.