Signature Theatre has mined something with its world premiere of Crossing that is deep, mysterious, and, just maybe, more precious than gold. Such richness isn’t easily retrieved, but the journey, like the journeys its characters represent, is an invitation “to follow” and well worth the effort.
Let’s face it, in seeing a brand new musical, there are simply a lot of moveable parts. The experience asks us to hang on and be willing to put the pieces together.
Crossing begins before the show even starts. Inside The Max, nine people sit or stand on stage, looking out. They are dressed in garb representing different decades of the past century, and all seem to be waiting for something or someone. Between the audience and the actors are railroad tracks, behind, a railway station facade. Then, as the house lights go down, the performers begin to murmur phrases, little clichés and aphorisms about traveling: “A journey begins with the first step” and so on.
They break into the first song, “Here I Am,” and all the voices come in, navigating confidently the swift changes of key and rhythms, difficult chord clusters, and musical tempi. At one point, the music builds into such thick complexity that the voices threaten to become a muddle. But the singers don’t back down. They not only hold their own parts, they convince us that their characters are battling for their separate stories to be heard. “Listen harder,” they seem to challenge us.
The creators, Matt Conner and Grace Barnes, have ventured into new territory in this spare, original work, criss-crossing between periods and events in American history. They have defied the laws of time and space and several “laws” of how to build an old-fashioned musical as well. There is no “star” whose story we follow, no love interest played out on stage, no fabulous set changes or dancing chorus, and few hummable tunes.
In fact, there is no plot that gets worked to a climactic resolution. Instead, this ensemble of players tunes in to a kind of twenty-first century waiting for their own particular Godot.
Theirs are voices of ordinary people. They are nameless, known only by their descriptions: a (World War I) Soldier, a Wealthy (Second Generation Railroad) Man, a Civil Rights Marcher, and so on. Slowly, their little revelations create resonances that ripple and fill the stage.
A little boy says, “The clock has stopped.” This event has created a margent between historical periods, allowing the characters to reach across time and have encounters with strangers. They share common feelings and discover that sometimes it is easier to express our deepest selves to a stranger than the people closest to us.
Barnes has penned a remarkable book and one that, to my mind, lays out a layered portrait of America. Yes, she starts out with clichés, but even here she seems to have captured that way Americans have of dealing with hard realities, a way of sidestepping our fears and avoiding facing ourselves or loved ones. As the musical progresses, Barnes delves deeper to explore the grit of the American pioneer spirit. She’s nailed it all – the willingness to head out into unchartered territory, the courage to fight for what’s right, the ability to align one’s life with a big cause (civil rights movement) or mission (helping end children’s suffering in disadvantaged countries,) and, perhaps our greatest gift in optimistically finding hope and renewal.
And what an ensemble! This cast is made up of several very accomplished performers who’ve graced many a Signature production. Florence Lacey and Tracy Lynn Olivera are dynamite leading ladies but here they pull the audience in close with nuanced, understated performances. Lacey plays a tightly-wound professional woman, a doctor saving suffering children in the third world, who discovers that in her drive to help others far away she has neglected her own daughter whose unrequited need has driven her to join Jim Jones’ “family.” Olivera, channeling Elizabeth Taylor in the late fifties, nails her quiet poise, still facial beauty, and vocal quality. She plays a British war bride who had followed her GI to America but now feels stranded in a loveless marriage.
Nova Y. Payton can blast others off the stage with her powerful vocal chops and she takes it to full effect in the show’s final number, “After the Rain.” But I thrilled also to discover Payton’s delicate, expressive soprano sound and a thoughtful side of this singer-actress emerged in her role as the mysterious narrator, conscience and perhaps even angel, who flutters in amongst the others.
Chris Sizemore also carved out some new territory in his portrait of a man pushed to the edge of existence. His song “Passing” built with such honest passion, it was an emotional high point of the show.
Austin Colby, last seen in Spin at Signature, possesses a simply gorgeous tenor sound that opens up with clear distinction. Peggy Yates, as his already grieving mother, and he as the young soldier share the beautiful, heart-wrenching duet, “Lovely Day,” about how people who love each other avoid expressing their deepest feelings.
As the backpacking, contemporary dude, Christopher Mueller carries most of the humor in the play with his affable, offhand remarks and enthusiasm at the prospect of getting laid in Europe. His easy-going physicality provided a good bridge for the audience to evoke the other historical “ghosts.” I loved his duet with Olivera with their divergent melodic parts. I only wished Mueller would pull in somewhat his wide-placed vowels as he dangerously went for those high notes.
The biggest surprise came from two newcomers. Ines Nassara may have the shortest bio in the group but her impact on stage was gripping and large. There was something about those narrow hips and slightly turned-in stance, her straightened hair and drawn-in shoulders that made me believe she was born in that era when “nice” black girls were brought up to be inconspicuous so they could “get by” safely. However, when her character tapped into her hero Harriet Tubman, she lit up the stage. Nassara’s duet with Payton, a rendition of the traditional “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” was truly inspiring for its quietly powerful, a capella intimacy. Young John Ray kept his focus the entire show on stage with all the pros and held his own with the best of them in the ensemble singing.
Director Eric Schaeffer has coalesced this show with great sensitivity, finding a style for the performers remarkable for its gestural economy, facial stillness, emotional honesty, and mostly straight-out focus. Thoughts and emotions flicker across the actors’ faces, and the audience gets to revel in the moment-to-moment subtle changes and powerful inner landscapes of feeling.
Closes November 24, 2013
4200 Campbell Avenue
1 hour, 30 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $36 – $95
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Everything, including the fine musical direction by Gabriel Mangiante, supports Conner’s music, which draws on rock, pop, gospel, and traditional freedom-fighting songs. I had seen two other Conner musicals before, both originally produced by Signature, The Hollow (co-written with Barnes) and Nevermore. Crossing is bolder and a genuinely haunting work. To my mind it’s his best work to date. I might only recommend that in the next iteration Conner not feel the need to kick up so many songs into a driving rock tempo.
Schaeffer has given the show time to grow, devoting over five years to developing it from an idea to a full production. Signature Theatre should be highly commended not only for sticking by the development of the writer-composer team but for giving a due gestation process to the birthing of this work.
Crossing is no-foot-stomping, neither simple crowd-pleasing musical. But at its end, I felt deeply touched and was already pondering the courage it takes to take the first step and change one’s course. I felt supremely grateful for spending this time “waiting in a train station” with these remarkable artists so honestly sharing their very extraordinary, ordinary stories.
Crossing . Book by Grace Barnes . Music and Lyrics by Matt Conner . Additional Lyrics by Grace Barnes . Directed by Eric Schaeffer . Featuring Tracy L Olivera, Peggy Yates, Austin Colby, Florence Lacey, Christopher Mueller, Ines Nassara, John Ray, Chris Sizemore, Nova Y Payton . Orchestrator August Eriksmoen . Music Director Gabe Mangiante . Scenic Design Eric Schaeffer . Costume Design Kathleen Geldard . Lighting Design Chris Lee . Stage Manager Kerry Epstein . Produced by Signature Theatre . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.