nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 2, 2010
In Transit, the new a cappella musical at Primary Stages, is very likeable and features a very talented set of performers making distinctive, pleasing music together. It's the brainchild of Kristen Anderson-Lopez, James-Allen Ford, Russ Kaplan, and Sara Wordsworth, and it is very much defined by their unusual concept of having every bit of their score created live on stage by the actors themselves—musical instruments, pre-recorded sound effects, live orchestra all need not apply. Hearing the seven ensemble members of In Transit provide backbeats and soundscape along with more conventional harmonizing is fun and exciting, making for a refreshingly different sound than we usually find in musical theatre.
All of this is put in service of a set of interlocking stories about several young and hopeful New Yorkers. Jane wants to be an actress and when we first meet her is preparing for a Very Big Audition; while she waits for the outcome, though, she's stuck in a dead-end job in an office she hates (her first song, echoing a quandary near and dear to thousands just like her across this great land, is entitled "No Dental"). Trent is a young gay man from a small Texas town who goes a little crazy when his fundamentalist Christian mother comes to visit: Trent reacts by ordering his boyfriend of several years, Steven, to leave their apartment. Ali, a former roommate of Trent (from his pre-Steven days), is pining over the loss of a boyfriend of her own. And Nate is a former stock trader who has become a victim of the Recession; when we first encounter him, he's on his way to a job interview at Staples (as a clerk). Eventually Nate meets up with Jane, providing the final link among these otherwise disparate characters.
What unites them, apart from their chance meetings, is that they ride the subway: the NYC institution gives the show its name and its underlying theme, which is that these young New Yorkers, like so many of us, are all heading somewhere, despite various obstacles. The show's most intriguing character is the only true denizen of the subway system: he goes by the name of Boxman, and he seems to be one of those ubiquitous busker/entertainer types that inhabit so many underground train stations. He's a generous, compassionate, wise fellow, and as portrayed by human beatbox extraordinaire Chesney Snow, he's the most interesting and ingratiating person in the show. I wanted to see more of him; I liked the way he seemed to personify many of the ideas in In Transit. But he's only really a part of Jane's story, which is disappointing.
Also disappointing is the ultimate vanilla-ness of the tales recounted in In Transit: Jane and Trent and Nate and Ali have problems shared by lots of people, but none is explored in sufficient depth to pull it beyond mere archetype, and the resolutions all felt very pat to me. I was surprised by how much time we spent above ground in the show, too: for a musical that's supposedly about New York's subways, a lot of it takes place elsewhere, despite the richness of the subway as a source for material. And I wondered, too, why the grand diversity of our town wasn't better represented here: the cast includes three African Americans, but no Hispanics or Asians; I didn't feel the melting pot ethos that makes NYC potent and unique, and I really wanted to.
Now, all of this said, let me reiterate that the performers are absolutely remarkable. I mean, I could never hope to make the gorgeous sounds and music that these folks are able to produce, seemingly effortlessly. In addition to Snow, the performers are: Steve French, Celisse Henderson, Hannah Laird, Graham Stevens, Denise Summerford, and Tommar Wilson. They bring the score of In Transit to life with beauty and vigor.
The show is directed by Joe Calarco and features a flexible, economical set by Anna Louizos, funky costume design by Jennifer Caprio, lighting by Jeff Croiter, and sound by Jon Weston (all of the performers are miked, and Weston artfully minimizes the detachment that such an arrangement might bring to an a cappella musical).
We're in the midst of the New York Musical Theatre Festival just now, and so earnest original musicals are seemingly everywhere. In Transit is a fun and diverting show, and its unique approach to its music definitely helps it stand out from the crowd.