Caught a preview performance of Passing Strange at the Belasco this past week. Now, I don't believe in reviewing a production before it opens, and am not about to do so here, but I do think it is fair to comment on a trend that seems to be gaining steam on Broadway -- the use of heavy duty amplification. My theatre-going life only stretches back to the 1970s, when Broadway musical casts were already routinely miked, so as much as my heart belongs with such events as Scott Siegel's glorious Broadway Unplugged concerts (long may they reign!), I have to confess that every main stem musical I have ever seen was electronically amplified. So there is no way to call me an old-school reactionary. I like hearing clearly from the last row of the balcony just as much as anyone else does -- an easy thing to do in smaller houses, but heaven help you in the Gershwin, the Minskoff, or the far larger houses on the national touring circuit these days.
However, I fail to see why any Broadway audience should be subjected to amplification that literally makes their clothing vibrate. Several days after seeing Passing Strange, my ear is still ringing -- yeeowch! Some numbers were so over-amplified that the lyrics became unintelligible. This may be an attempt to make rock concert-goers feel more at home in theatres, but I found the effect repelling. And that's a real pity, because (much as I refuse to review the show here) there is much in Passing Strange to enjoy. Like many others, I first noticed the volume increase in Rent, arguably the first Broadway musical where the sound system took up more square footage (and far more budget) than the scenery. Other shows have added more woofer and tweeter power. It certainly kicked up a few decibels higher last year with Spring Awakening, but Passing Strange is far, far louder. We're talking volume for the sake of volume. I wish Stew and company would turn down the racket so the real power of this show can come through.
I was not alone in my reaction, but to be fair, there were clearly many in the house who adored every ear-splitting vibe. If others feel differently about louder sound on Broadway, I invite them to post here. My hearing is still a bit off, but I can still read you loud and clear.