December 18, 2016

"In Transit" Stalls Due to Stereotypes

It took me awhile to get the double meaning of the title In Transit, the a cappella musical that opened last Sunday at Circle in the Square. The show is set primarily in the subway so I got that transit reference right away. But it also focuses on a supposedly random group of people (although we later discover that they're connected in ways that I suppose I shouldn't spoil) and their lives are in flux, or in transit. Alas, neither meaning worked for me.

For starters, who wants to see a story set in the subway?  Most of us New Yorkers consider the subway a necessary evil and want to spend as little time there as we can. And tourists are unlikely to get jokes that reference things like Dr. Zizmor, the now-retired dermatologist whose ads were a regular fixture in subway cars.

The people populating the show's cars aren't likely to draw ticket buyers either. By coincidence I saw In Transit on the same day I'd listened to an oral history about the making of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee on the Broadway Backstory podcast (which by the way if you aren't listening to, you should be listening to; click here to check it out).

The characters in Spelling Bee are a motley crew too but each has a distinctive personality and set of problems. Plus they all share the common goal of wanting to win the bee, which binds them together and gives the audience a rooting interest in them.

By contrast, the main characters in In Transit are just a bunch of people who all take the subway. But they could just as easily have bumped into one another at a Starbucks.

Primarily white and entirely young and middle class, they include an actress juggling auditions and a day job as an office temp, a laid-off junior exec who can only find work at Staples, a woman trying to get over being ditched by the guy she moved to New York to be with and a gay couple planning to get married although one still isn't out to his mother.

None of them—or anyone else in the show—rises beyond the level of stereotype. When the gay couple goes to Texas to reveal their marriage plans to the closeted one's family, I knew right away what his mother was going to say and what his fire-and-brimstone minister was going to say and they both said exactly those things.

Meanwhile, back in New York, a black subway musician (played at the performance my friend Jessie and I saw by beat-box master Chesney Snow, who alternates the role with Steven "HeaveN" Cantor) provides the rhythmic beats for the instrument-free numbers and fills the role of the Magical Negro who seems to exist only to dispense wise advice—and even free train fares—to the confused yuppies.

The book, music and lyrics for In Transit were written by Kristen Anderson-Lopez, James-Allen Ford, Russ Kaplan and Sara Wordsworth, four friends who sang a cappella together and began developing the show 15 years ago, long before Anderson-Lopez broke out with the song "Let It Go," which she and her husband, Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon composer Robert Lopez, wrote for the movie "Frozen" (click here to read more about her).

In Transit's songs are fine and a few are even better than that, although I found myself wishing that a couple of them had been accompanied by instruments instead of the vocal harmonizing arranged by Deke Sharon, who did the same for the "Pitch Perfect" movies (click here to read moreabout him).

But what In Transit really needed was an experienced book writer or at least a strong dramaturge who might have helped craft a compelling narrative. Director Kathleen Marshall does what she can by keeping the show moving. Donyale Werle's set centers around a treadmill that serves as the train tracks and a conveyor belt for the bits of furniture that move in and out to signal scene changes.

And the top-notch cast, lead by Margot Seibert, James Snyder, Justin Guarini, Telly Leung and Erin Mackey, races on and off and jumps into and out of costumes (kudos to Clint Ramos for one spectacular dress, worn with just the right swag by Moya Angela) as they play the main characters as well as supporting roles, all the while harmonizing.

They're all ingratiating and in terrific voice. If only they'd been given something to sing about.

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