A musical about the New York subway? Didn’t Lincoln Center do that in 2009 with Happiness, from the creative team (including director/choreographer Susan Stroman) that collaborated on the smash hit Contact? But where Happiness concerned a disparate batch of New Yorkers in an underground limbo who are actually dead, In Transit from Primary Stages has a lot more life in it. Although it’s not always a smooth ride, this new musical has a lot of appeal in its 90 minutes. And did I mention that the whole thing is sung a cappella? Gleeks, buy your tickets now! Seven performers play over 38 roles from aspiring actress and struggling financier to enterprising coffee cart owner and sassy token booth employee. When the individual members of the septet are not singing lead, they are providing backup or creating a cavalcade of sound effects. This is a musical with no instruments but the voices on stage. The cast list in the Playbill and accompanying insert names the performers by both vocal range (Bass, Alto, etc.) and various characters played. Throughout the performance, reggae, hip-hop, rock, and pop are interspersed with dashes of doo-wop and barbershop.
The four composer-lyricists — Kristen Anderson-Lopez, James-Allen Ford, Russ Kaplan, and Sara Wordsworth — have worked on the show for almost a decade, with productions at the 2003 New York International Fringe Festival (where it was called Along the Way) and the 2008 Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. This incarnation, tightly directed and staged by Joe Calarco (Shakespeare’s R&J), who also helmed the terrific Burnt Part Boys at Playwrights Horizons earlier this year, is set on a expertly designed subway platform courtesy of Anna Louizos. The characters of In Transit are trying to get from place to place like all New Yorkers who use the subway as their main form of transportation. Paths cross and lives intersect, with both daily minutiae and extraordinary meltdowns witnessed by an ever-changing parade of nameless, faceless straphangers. The rhythms and sounds of life for urban commuters are always on view on the subway.
Besides the outstanding direction and design, the best thing about In Transit is the flair and forte the seven principals bring to the material. Creating an a cappella musical requires not only acting and singing skills, but also precise timing. It is high praise to say that the cast makes this Herculean task seem effortless. Chesney Snow, one of New York’s premier beatboxers who has actually performed on New York’s subway platforms, deserves a special shout-out for providing the propulsive percussive foundation as Boxman. In addition, Celisse Henderson displays impressive vocal chops and keen comedic timing, especially as the aforementioned, scene-stealing MTA clerk with an attitude. And Steve French, who sings Bass, also gets props for bringing the Bowser (from Sha Na Na) persona into the 21st century with his multiple roles.
As staged in the intimate 196-seat Theater A at 59E59, there is a lot of humor in the show that will appeal to residents of the Big Apple. But because of their esoteric quality, many of the jokes will fall flat on out-of-town theatergoers who may not yet possess an insider’s view of Gotham. And while the characters are presented as New York archetypes, their stories end of being more commonplace than inspiring, more trite than universal. The very talented Denise Summerford as Jane, hopeful thespian, and equally skilled Tommar Wilson as Trent, semi-closeted gay urban professional, seem more than capable of handling roles with more depth. The timing in the middle and the end of the show could use some tightening too. Although the first 20 minutes zip by in a whirl, In Transit is paced more like a local than an express.
These are, however, minor quibbles with a show that can be truthfully called utterly charming. Because of its big city-centric themes and humor, In Transit might not transfer well to regional theater or even Broadway. But it’s a thoroughly enjoyable trip about the noise of New York for lovers of musical theater. And did I mention that the whole thing is sung a cappella?