Sunday, December 11, 2016

Deep Beneath the City, Lives are "In Transit"

Review: In Transit

The cast of In Transit.

While musical theatre has always been a collaborative art form, seeing four credited writers on the new a cappella musical In Transit does raise the fear that too many cooks will spoil the proverbial broth. Thankfully, like the artful vocal arrangements that permeate the show, the varied sensibilities of the show's writing team seamlessly blend into a harmonious whole, creating a vibrant and exciting tapestry that mimics the hustle and bustle of the New York City subway system.

In Transit follows the interconnecting lives of various New Yorkers trying to find their footing in a city that can seem overwhelming and uncaring, but is also alive with an unending supply of hopes and dreams. There's Jane, the 30-ish actress working a temp job while still pursing her big break. And Nate, an ex-finance guy who has gone from the lavish excesses of Wall Street to struggling to make ends meet. Trent and Steven are a loving gay couple trying to figure out how to break the happy news of their engagement to Trent's conservative mother. And poor Ali is struggling to move on with her life after being dumped by the guy she relocated across the country for.

Anyone who has been young in New York will instantly recognize these people, connecting with their plights in ways that may be uncomfortably real at times. Creators Kristen Anderson-Lopez, James-Allen Ford, Russ Kaplan, and Sara Wordsworth - who jointly share the book, music, and lyric credits - imbue each character with recognizable foibles and that peculiar mix of gumption and slight delusion necessary to survive in the Big Apple. The network of connections between the characters (Trent is Jane's agent, who begins dating Nate, who is Ali's brother) never feels forced, especially since the real New York is a city of equally convoluted relationships. You get the distinct impression that every character in the show is based on either a member of the writing team or one of their close friends, lending everyone a truthfulness that is refreshing in a sometimes stilted medium. These characters are neither living out Cinderella-style fantasies nor Shakespearean tragedies, but a charming blend of big and small victories and defeats that defines city life.

The show's book is heavy on NYC references, giving it a charming specificity which may also limit its appeal. Even among New Yorkers, more recent city transplants might not understand the special place Dr. Zizmor holds in long-time residents' hearts, or exactly why Trent and Steven are busy on the last Sunday in June. But even if the specifics confuse the tourists that have become Broadway's lifeblood, the character's emotions are universal and remain crystal clear throughout. For a show written by four people, everything feels remarkably of the same voice, with more unity and cohesion than some shows with writing teams half the size. The intermissionless 100 minutes does feel a tad long, and the narration provided by a subway denizen known only as Boxman seems extraneous, but overall In Transit is solidly constructed from beginning to end.

The a cappella score is similarly impressive, covering a wide range of musical styles and genres while maintaining a cohesive sound. Deke Sharon, the prolific a cappella arranger most famous for his work on the Pitch Perfect films, perhaps plays things a tad too safe with his choices, but there is a fullness to his work which really helps the score sing. The songs are well written, catchy, and expertly convey the uncertainty but growing maturity of your late twenties/early thirties.

The cast is brimming with talent, producing a cadre of fine performances with nary a clunker in the bunch. Margo Seibert is positively winsome as Jane, who is slowly realizing her big break may never come but also refuses to let the pressures of the real world totally snuff out her showbiz dreams. Justin Guarini and Telly Leung are both quite affecting as Trent and Steven respectively, with Guarini's late in the game performance of the song "Choosing Not to Know" perhaps the show's most touching moment. James Snyder takes the least sympathetic character of the bunch, obnoxious Wall Street broker Nate, and believably humbles him throughout the evening as he struggles to get back on his feet. Erin Mackey is charmingly neurotic as Ali, and big-voiced Moya Angela makes quite the impression in multiple roles, particularly during her rousing rendition of "A Little Friendly Advice," which will have you cheering even if the song's sentiment seems designed to make you uncomfortable.

Everything is kinetically staged by three-time Tony-winner Kathleen Marshall, whose choreographic background helps keep all the bodies moving in interesting ways even if the amount of pure dance is minimal. She makes excellent use of Donyale Werle's subway platform set, which is bisected by a conveyor belt which doubles as the subway train and a handy way to move the various set pieces on and off the stage. Everything is gorgeously lit by Donald Holder, and while the contemporary setting doesn't give costume designer Clint Ramos much chance to show off he does manage to sneak in a gloriously whimsical dress made entirely from Metrocards.

One hopes that the Great White Way can continue to support shows like In Transit, which in its own way manages to be somewhat revolutionary in both form and subject matter. There are plenty of shows about idealistic youths pursuing their dreams, and perhaps even more about disillusioned forty and fifty-somethings, but In Transit tackles the often underrepresented period between those two dramatic goldmines. Solidly constructed, lovingly staged, and expertly performed, In Transit is the kind of delightful mid-sized musical Broadway could use more of.


  1. Would you say this is 2016's equivalent of The Bridges Of Madison County for you? Most critics had a "meh" response to the show (with Ben Brantley even comparing it to the Care Bears), but you seem to love it so much that I wouldn't be surprised if you rank it among your best shows of the year.

    1. No, this isn't on the same level as "The Bridges of Madison County." However, I feel this show needs some supporters considering it is exactly the kind of show everyone claims they want (original, different, not a star vehicle) but is rarely embraced by the critical community. I find Brantley and the rest of the New York critics tend to be much harsher on new works than they are on poorly done revivals, then act surprised that more producers don't rush to do new work. Why would they, when you can produce a revival where the hardest part (figuring out the structure) is already done, and have the advantage of some brand recognition?

    2. But where do you draw the line between cutting something some slack without lowering journalistic integrity? From what I've read of reviews, critics seem to feel the characters are too stereotypical and that they've been done a million times before in better ways.

    3. It is a case by case basis. In my opinion, the characters are not some we have seen before, at least onstage. The show isn't about idealistic young 20-somethings or jaded 40 year olds, but that transition period between the two, an important distinction that I don't feel has been explored nearly as much. And even when characters are familiar types, I think part of a fair review is acknowledging when they are well realized even if the reviewer also wants to question the need to tell another story about those types (which is a fair question).

      It is mostly a question of tone. If a show is attempting something different - like an a cappella score - you can acknowledge the risk it took and encourage more shows to take risks while still pointing out that the risk maybe didn't pay off the way you'd hoped. And it's not getting so caught up in what didn't work that you fail to acknowledge what did, and in my experience when you get to Broadway there is generally something that works in even the worst shows. (For instance, Julie Taymore's "Spider-Man" produced some lovely visuals while still being by and large one of the worst things I've ever seen.)