In Transit is the first a cappella musical on Broadway, and the rich harmonies and rhythmic beatboxing of a cappella evangelist Deke Sharon’s arrangements reveal the human voice as the most flexible of musical instruments. Unfortunately, the freshness of the voice-only orchestra doesn’t completely compensate for the flat familiarity of much else in the musical.
In Transit is the kind of show you want to root for. Four friends who met in an a cappella group after college have spent years expanding and revising what was initially a ten-minute class project by two of them at the BMI musical workshop. One of the four is Kristen Anderson-Lopez, who during that time also (with her husband Bobby Lopez of Avenue Q and Book of Mormon fame) wrote songs for the animated movie musical Frozen, including the Oscar-winning “Let It Go.”
In Transit features 11 appealing and accomplished performers portraying some 40 subway-riding New Yorkers. These include a gay couple, Steven and Trent, played by Telly Leung, recently the leading man in Allegiance, and Justin Guarini, who is still best known as American Idol’s first year runner-up, although he has become a respected Broadway performer. Steven and Trent are planning to get married, but there’s a complication; Trent hasn’t told his fundamentalist Christian mother back in Texas (Moya Angela) that he’s gay.
Erin Mackey, a Broadway veteran most recently the star of Amazing Grace, is Ali, who moved to New York to be with her boyfriend, who subsequently dumped her; now she’s alone and lonely in the big city.
Margo Seibert (who made her Broadway debut as Adrian in the musical Rocky) plays Jane, who has been working dead-end jobs for a decade while she tries to make it as an actress. She meets Nate (James Snyder, last on Broadway in If/Then), who had a well-paying job as a banker until he mistakenly sent an e-mail critical of his boss to the entire office, including his boss.
Little that happens to these commonplace characters is surprising or all that engaging. There are half-hearted efforts to persuade us that these individual characters all belong in the same musical, by throwaway lines that establish some interrelationships — Trent is Jane’s agent; Nate is Ali’s brother. But the only clear and consistent connection is that they all ride the subway (along with “eight million souls,” as an early lyric puts it), and that they in some way fit the show’s metaphor of subway riding as being “in transit” because they are transitioning from one station of their lives to the next. (It doesn’t seem to have occurred to the creative team that the only human beings metaphorically not in transit in one way or another are those who have reached their terminal.)
There is a naïveté that feels baked into this show.
“Jane: Ever heard the saying ‘Do what you love, and the money will follow’?
Nate: No. I like it though.”
Is there any educated adult who hasn’t heard that saying?
Naïveté can be refreshing. But the same day I saw In Transit, I happened to attend Max and Alan, a concert by Alan Cumming at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in connection with “Max Beckmann in New York,” an exhibition of the works by the German-born painter who moved to New York, and did paintings of New Yorkers, in the last years of his life. “There are many ways I feel close to him,” Cumming said of Beckmann. “His love of New York City for one thing; his circuitous journey here.”
It was a reminder to me of how many works of art, in all different forms, have celebrated the city and its pilgrims — people who, in the words of E.B. White in “Here Is New York, are “seeking sanctuary or fulfillment or some greater or lesser grail,” but are most often rewarded with “the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.” It’s a legacy that should present a daunting challenge to those who are trying to capture the city and its citizens, but it doesn’t seem to stop anybody. This season on Broadway alone, we have A Bronx Tale and (though not explicitly) Falsettos. In recent seasons, we’ve had If/Then and Act One and many others.
Luckily, In Transit has several assets that help us try to put aside its bland stories and rarely memorable lyrics or melodies. Director and choreographer Kathleen Marshall injects excitement and energy into many of the musical numbers, even when the cast is just bouncing up and down in the makeshift subway seats placed on the runway-like area of the stage, meant to be the subway platform. (Donyale Werle’s set of a subway station, unlike an actual subway station, is at least clean and doesn’t get in the way.) Clint Ramos dresses one character in a hilarious costume (which I won’t spoil.) There are some funny. knowing bits about New York City subway culture, a subculture in several senses of that word. (In contention for my favorite is the announcement: “Attention passengers: due to scheduled weekend service changes, all Expresses are running local, all Locals are running express, the A is the B, the 2 is the 3, and the Q is a bus.”)
And then there is Boxman. He calls himself Boxman because, as he explains to the audience in the very first words of the show, he likes to “think outside the box, man.” But it surely has something to do as well with beatboxing. Boxman is apparently such a demanding role that it’s double cast. (At the performance I attended, Chesney Snow was Boxman.) The character himself is not especially well-etched. A recording artist and commercial actor who inexplicably hangs out in the subway and seems to know all the other characters, he comes perilously close to being a hipper version of the Magical Negro. But the actor playing Boxman also serves as the entire percussive section for In Transit, and his awesome repertoire of grunts and growls and taps and tones – and sounds for which there are no adequate English words to describe — cannot be beat. They punctuate and drive the continuous harmonizing by the other performers both on stage and offstage, which creates a new sound for Broadway. We’ll see (and hear) whether or not this becomes a trend.
Meanwhile, ironically, In Transit opens just a few days after both The Band’s Visit Off-Broadway and the launch of Mozart in the Jungle Season 3 on Amazon — two shows about orchestras.
In Transit is on stage at Circle in the Stage (235 W 50th St, between Broadway and Eight Avenue, New York, NY 10019)
Tickets and details
In Transit. Book, music and lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez, James-Allen Ford, Russ Kaplan, Sara Wordsworth. Directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall. A cappella arrangements by Deke Sharon. Scenic design by Donyale Werle, costume design by Clint Ramos, lighting design by Donald Holder, sound design by Ken Travis. Cast: David Abeles, Moya Angela, Steven “HeaveN” Cantor, Justin Guarini, Telly Leung, Erin Mackey, Gerianne Pérez, Margo Seibert, Chesney Snow, James Snyder, Mariand Torres, Nicholas Ward, Adam Bashian, Laurel Harris, Aurelia Williams. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell