Forget the conventional wisdom that successful theater is the product of belabored rewrites and long gestation periods for writers, performers and directors. theAtrainplays mini-musicals are written in the time it takes to ride the length of a New York City subway route. And the next night is opening night. This theatrical equivalent of microwave popcorn bursts with energy. If not all the kernels fully pop, that's understandable - it's well worth coming aboard for the ride.
The evening consists of six 15-minute vignettes with songs, each taking place on a subway car and most having something to do with random strangers meeting. On Monday, September 12, at the 207th Street subway station at Manhattan's northern tip, playwrights (each writing separately) began with blank pages and hope. They reached into a bag to pick a card with a number indicating how many characters would be in the plot, then pulled out that many actor headshots from another bag. Each writer had to have a script done by the end of the line, Far Rockaway. There they were matched, in another blind drawing, from a pool of waiting directors and choreographers, plus songwriters who would add a couple of appropriate instant songs before the train got back to its starting point. After a stop at the copy shop, rehearsals began for the next night's debut. I caught up with the show a week later.
The program calls each tale "an Atrainplay" and likewise songs and characters are not named. The band, on a platform above the playing area, includes keyboardist Rick Hip Flores, who also wrote music and lyrics for one of the pieces, about a food writer who tentatively strikes up a conversation with a mime. ("It's OK. I'm off-duty," he says and they chat.) Librettist Arlene Hutton is one of the veterans of these rushed writings and tries to show a simple meeting of the minds, resisting any temptation to get too preachy. Things are kept light under Mariana Carreno's direction and Tricia Brouk's choreography. The two passengers are likably portrayed by Darcie Siciliano and Lawrence Feeney (who, under the white face paint, is also the producer of the whole Atrainplays extravaganza). Though all of the playlets are humorous, a couple offer more food for thought.
Oddly compelling, with emotion that sneaks in between laughs, are two especially effective pieces. One is the tale of three dispirited men who are unhappy with their current lives and are seeking understanding and change. Persuaded to stay and talk to each other rather than get off at their planned stops, they forego their subway connections and make a human connection instead. Altar Boyz fans will happily note that original and current Juan, Ryan Duncan, provides a nicely shaded performance in this piece. Kevin Townley and Paul Romanello skillfully round out the mismatched trio who elect to give up their lives and live on the subway, planning to make it homey. Collaborating on both music and lyrics are Sean Williams and Jordana Williams (who recently got attention at the Fringe Festival for their Fleet Week). The song cues here are too sudden, not smoothly integrated into P. Seth Bauer's sensitive moments; the emotions are more successfully illuminated in the dialogue, with quirky humor well-sprinkled at unexpected moments.
One politically relevant piece resonated for me. Three strangers read the current news, outraged by our nation's present crises and politics. Enter a fourth subway rider, deeply absorbed in the news she is reading - a movie star gossip magazine. Her world begins and ends there, and she is chided by the others, forced to confront reality and the photos of tragedy victims until she freaks out. The play has something to say about how we choose to process current events or live in denial. Natalie Douglas, best known as a cabaret singer, is sensational as the ostrich with her head in the Hollywood sand. She is both giddy and gaudy as she sings and struts a knockout number about celebrities ("The Jennifers never have bad hair/ Never look flabby in their underwear"). Talented Brandon Patton wrote the witty songs. Though royally entertaining, there is some disappointment as repeated lyrics end the vignette.
Another story involves two people escaping the clutches of Scientology by going underground (literally - to the subway, of course) and it is a good skewering. Yet another depicts the tension among people more equipped to relate to pets rather than other human beings. The latter has a standout Gaby Alter song for Erica Ash, whose portrayal and singing are highlights.
Some of the songs in the evening's collection would benefit from the luxury of time, as they don't always flesh out the characters or get them from point A to point B as well as the train trips do. There is repetition in lyrics and many are in more of a pop style than traditional Broadway. But for devotees of the beleaguered musical form, there is a grand guilty pleasure at evening's end. Taking a cue from The Twilight Zone, characters from Broadway flops are thrown together in a kind of subway hell, and it is a hoot and a half. Beach bunnies from the sunburned Good Vibrations and other banished characters, including blood-drenched Carrie herself, welcome the newest tenant, John Lennon (Lennon will close on the day this limited-run show shutters). With a cast of 11, this finale happily brings back many of the actors seen earlier in the evening.
Each adventure has a healthy share of zinger lines, and performers are polished and focused. A fair number of the participants have been involved in earlier outings in this ongoing series, great training for any creative artist.
the Atrainplays is recommended viewing, and costs considerably less than a weekly MetroCard. But buy your tickets now or else, like the subway, you may find yourself without a seat.
New York Musical Theatre Festival
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