In October 1998, Joe's Pub opened at The Public Theatre near Astor Place in New York City. Thirteen years later, it's an institution -- and this week it opened again.
Stew & Heidi, the masterminds who created Passing Strange (Stew won the 2008 Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical), had the honor of reinitiating the club. They were the perfect choice, having played there with their band The Negro Problem in 2003 and then bringing Passing Strange to The Public for its New York debut. It was a homecoming in all senses of the word, for the performers and the audience alike. There was an air of excitement and familiarity, celebration and casual glee.
As of Tuesday night, Broadway's favorite nightclub is back in better form than ever, its new era ushered in by an act that perfectly symbolizes the place itself. Stew is a different kind of rockstar, his music a combination of lyrical poetry, jazz, rock & roll, soul and slam. Heidi Rodewald, Stew's longtime songwriting parter and primary bandmate, is a smart, alternative, bad-ass bass-player. At first glance they seem unlikely Broadway stars (no sequins or jazzhands here), but their work is evocative and their storytelling sublime in a way that, when examined more deeply, is undeniably theatrical.
It was, in fact, the promise of seeing Stew & Heidi that brought me to the Joe's Pub reopening event in the first place. I feel deeply in love with Passing Strange, seeing it three times on Broadway and watching the Spike Lee's filmed performances countless times. The first time I experienced the musical I came home feeling spiritually awakened. The idea of watching the performers revisit their masterpiece, and of seeing & hearing the music again for the first time, delighted me. I bought my ticket the day they went onsale.
Walking into the space (through the lobby of The Public Theatre, rather than the side entrance used before the renovations), I was thrilled. The theatre has been rearranged so the stage faces south. Seats line the lip of the stage for those who want the super-closeup, behind which dining tables seating four-to-six allow groups to sit together. At the back of the space a long bar replaces the old "general admission" area -- now everyone has a seat, and every seat is reserved, meaning that every patron is promised a perfect view of the stage.
My hope of a reinvention of Passing Strange was met and exceeded. Stew led the group (he & Heidi were joined by long-time collaborator John Spurney along with another friend) in some of his favorite numbers. In some they reverted to versions previously performed in the early (Berkeley) incarnations of the show; in others they improvised around the single phrases they liked the best. Stew told stories in between that were hilarious and unrehearsed; he explained that he'd never allow a show like this to be live-streamed because he never knows whose secrets he might accidentally reveal. On several instances, he encouraged the audience to sing along.
I sat along a stretch of glossy wood that separated the tables from the bar, sipping a glass of cabernet and dipping pieces of warm flat-bread into a delicious savory hummus. I came alone but found myself sharing food and song with the couple sitting next to me; they shared that they had first met in line waiting to get discount tickets to Passing Strange.
In front and to the left of us, Oskar Eustis, artistic director of The Public Theatre, sat with his family and danced in his seat as the music clearly captivated him. At the table to his left, a pair of hawaiian-shirted middle-aged men knew the words to every song.
As I looked around I saw smiles on every person's face. The food was delicious, the wine was poured generously to fill the glasses, and most importantly, the storytelling & music from the stage was sublime. The vibe was more party than performance, more celebration than concert.
The show was wonderful, warm and familiar -- just like the new Joe's Pub.