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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Now that Fun Home, another terrific and decidedly fresh musical that started Off-Broadway, has vacated the Circle in the Square, In Transit, which began life at Primary Stages last year, is hoping to repeat its success. To cut to the chase: That's most unlikely.
In Transit does indeed offer that something new and different, at least for Broadway— it's all a-cappella. But the novelty of vocally supplied accompaniment to the songs comes with its own shortcomings. And it's saddled with a book stuffed with well-worn vignettes about characters too familiar to be interesting or moving.
Granted, there's the subway setting that has had a certain built-in appeal for New Yorkers as well as tourists since the 1961 musical Subways Are For Sleeping. Most famously, there's the Comden-Green-Bernstein ode to New York, On the Town, with its memorable subway scene.
In Transit offers a more enjoyable hour and forty minutes with its loosely connected commuter stories than the depressing 2009 Happiness. However, it doesn't strike me as a keeper in this big theater.
I didn't see the Primary Stages production, but undoubtedly the show's being essentially a revue with loosely connected vignettes to shoehorn in more than a dozen musical numbers worked nicely at 59E59's tiny stage. The intimacy of that location was also more conduce for relying on the flavorful beatbox sound effects and ensemble-sung rhythmic support to downplay the humdrum book — and without the overamplification deemed necessary in this much larger venue.
The quartet responsible for the book, music and lyrics is certainly not short on credentials and talent. (Kristen Anderson-Lopez a Disney regular will be part of the stage adaptation of their Broadway-bound Frozen). No complaints either about the on-stage and behind the scenes team brought aboard for the move from the 59th Street R Train Stop to the E train's 50th street station within a stone's throw of the Circle In the Square. The problem is that even the talented, multi-Tony Award winning director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall can't save these talented young performers from having to play characters that the show's writers have failed to improve on.
Everyone in these stereotypical story lines seem stuck at a go-nowhere point in their lives. That and the fact that they all ride the subway is the overall connecting thread that sees the focus jump back and forth between the characters stuck in go-nowhere situations. There's Jane (Margot Seibert), whose lost out on love and financial security to pursue her dream of an acting career. Nate (James Snyder) is in a career crisis as a result of an inadvertently sent "reply to all" e-mail. Ali (Erin Mackey), tries to get unstuck from her misery over an it's over relationship by training for, and running, the marathon.
Last and most hackneyed of these vignettes centers around a gay couple, Trent (Justin Guarini) and Steven (Telly Leung). Their pending marriage of stalled by Trent's inability to come out to his evangelical Texas mama (Moya Angela). Fortunately Angela gets to play two other roles. The best of these is as the tough ticket booth lady who provides some of the more amusing moments, especially when she sashays up and down the stage decked out in a strapless gown s that Clint Ramos constructed with metro cards.
Another character serving as a connecting presence and provider of some pretty amazing rhythmic sound-effects is a subway musician who calls himself the Boxman. He's played by two alternating beatbox/vocal percussionists, Chesney Snow and Steven "Heaven"Cantor. (Chesney Snow who I saw is the only holdover from the Off-Broadway production). However, the ensemble members' a-capella backup of the performers in the spotlight is all in the same style and thus more monotonous than ground breaking. The songs overall are catchy enough but diminished by the over-amplified delivery.
Donyale Werle has made good use of the Circle in the Square's long runway stage with his reasonably authentic two-level subway station set. The end not surrounded by the seats around the other three sides features two stair cases leading down from the ticket booth and turnstiles to the uptown and downtown platforms of an unspecified station. Budget considerations use the space between the platforms to roll a few subway benches rather than a whole car on and off. This conveyor belt set-up also brings on props for some above ground locations. Donald Holder bathes it all in his as always effective lighting.
Naturally, there are plenty of touches to induce knowing chuckles. But apparently Anderson-Lopez an company have been too busy to ride the subways since writing the script. Dermatologist Dr. Zizmor's ads haven't been seen in any train since his retirement a year ago. The Poetry in Motion posters referred to in one lyric are also gone. Alas delays and crowded trains will remain an inevitable part of the subway rider's life — but the subways will continue to provide the best and quickest way to get to and from a show, long after this one makes way for the Circle in the Square's next tenant.
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Book, Music and Lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez, James-Allen Ford, Russ Kaplan, Sara Wordsworth.
Directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall
Cast: David Abeles (Dave), Moya Angela (Ms.Williams,Momma, Althea), Justin Guarini (Trent), Telly Leung (Steven), Erin Mackey (Ali), Gerianne Perez (), Margo Seibert (Jane), Chesney Snow alternating with Steven Heaven"" Cantor (Boxman), James Snyder (Nate), Mariand Torres (Nina), Nicholas Ward (Chris).
Scenic Design by Donyale Werle.
Costume esign by Clint Ramos.
Lighting Design by Donald Holder. Sound Design by Ken Travis.
Hair an wig design by Cookie Jordan
Stage Manager: Kim Vernace
Running Time: 1 hour and 40 minutes without intermission
Circle In The Square Theatre 1633 Broadway 235 West 50th Street 212/239-6200
From 11/10/16; opening 12/11/16; closing 6/25/17
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