Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - December 11, 2016
Book, music and lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez, James-Allen Ford, Russ Kaplan, Sara Wordsworth, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Gregory T. Christopher, James-Allen Ford, Russ Kaplan, Karla Lant, Sara Wordsworth. Directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall. Music supervision by Rick Hip-Flores. A cappella arrangements by Deke Sharon. Scenic design by Donyale Werle. Costume design by Clint Ramos. Lighting design by Donald Holder. Sound design by Kevn Travis. Projection design by Caite Hevner. Hair and wig design by Cookie Jordan. Featuring 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, Arbender Robinson, Aurelia Williams.
Although the action (with a few detours) is generally laid in and around a subway station (the fairy-tale-realistic set by Donyale Werle depicts the Atlantic Avenue stop in Brooklyn), In Transit's real raison d'être is found elsewhere. It's performed completely a cappella, with all of its underscoring and audio effects, like its vocal lines, produced entirely by the 11-person cast. Most representative is the actor playing a "character" named Boxman (Chesney Snow and Steven "HeaveN" Cantor alternate in the part), a beatboxer who is so in tune with his natural instrument that by holding a microphone to his head or his throat, he can foley up a blistering array of atmospheric sounds (sliding doors, swooshing trains, and much more) without even moving his lips. No one else is that accomplished.
Not that they need to beaside from Boxman's stuff, which is musically and dramatically tangential, conventional singing (if not harmonizing) is what's called for. On one hand, that's comforting, as it ensures that the proceedings never will, and never can, get weird enough to be off-putting; most a cappella groups, after all, whether in the "real" world or in the Pitch Perfect movies, treat tastes that tend toward the boulevard rather than the adventurous. A minimum of half the fun (and probably a lot more) comes from witnessing how familiar renditions of familiar songs can be reimagined for this unusual medium without losing their defining uniqueness.
But it's this quality that In Transit's compositions cannot capturefor reasons more technical than artistic. A cappella groups tend to use well-established material because the audience's minds, rather than its ears, will be able to fill in the gaps that are necessarily created by the crazy presentation. If you can't make out every single syllable of a song because the guy singing the peripatetic guitar line beneath it gets a little too excited, who cares? You already know it. With new material, you don't have that option. You have to hear and interpret things the first time, which makes the lyrics count even more. And, like it or not, the "oohs," "waahs," and "badadadas" that constitute the accompaniment are, when sung by humans, lyrics.
Because they're lyrics, their arranger (Deke Sharon) and the authors (who conceived the piece with Gregory T. Christopher and Karla Lant) want them heard. It's an understandable but incorrect impulse, because having up to a dozen people all simultaneously singing something different, and not complementary, is a recipe for aural soup. Could the sound designer fix this by bumping down (way down) the levels on the "support"? Sure. But then you wouldn't hear the words. (Sorry, the artistry.) So Ken Travis, tasked with the impossible job here, doesn't do that, or at least not enough. He sets a few basic Marquess of Queensberry Rules (which, because this is Broadway in 2016, involves the overall volume level dialed at "ear-splittingly loud"), and then lets all the combating vocal cords duel it out. Sometimes it sort of works, but usually it, uh, goes off the rails. Too many of the 100 intermissionless minutes are just plain unintelligible.
This matters less than you may think, however, as the actual musical content and narrative function of the songs are secondary concerns. They're no great shakes, either, but they, like the plot they ostensibly serve, are cute and inoffensive enough to please when they're able to pierce through the din. What emerges then is a tangle that involves Jane (Margo Seibert), a struggling actress on the cusp of her Big Break); Nate (James Snyder), the handsome former hedge-fund manager who's having cash-flow issues after a careless e-mail cost him his cushy job; Trent (Justin Guarini), Jane's agent, who's engaged to Steven (Telly Leung), but can't bring himself to break the news to his hard-line Christian-conservative mother; and Ali (Erin Mackey), a young woman who's having trouble moving on after a breakup. They all meet (underground, of course), they all reconfigure their friendships and relationships and allegiances, and they all end up happybecause, really, how else could they go?
There's some dopey thematic justification about them all being on journeys of one sort or another (to tie in with the title, see), but in terms of complexity, this isn't Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. It's not even Cats. If it were at all involved, you wouldn't pay attention to the a cappella. It is, just barely, good enough, with a lot of prettily singing pretty people who are all instantly and immensely likable, albeit burdened with no excess charisma or star quality. (Nicholas Ward, who's charged with busting out the deepest bass notes, and Moya Angela, unleasher of a fierce, gospel-like fervor on a few key authority roles, do come dangerously close to violating this tenet, though.)
You won't remember long what they do or what their songs were about. Nor will you remember much about Kathleen Marshall's direction and choreography, which are electrically undistinguished. And if not for one number in which Angela parades about the stage wearing a sprawling ballgown constructed of MetroCards, you wouldn't remember anything about Clint Ramos's costumes or Donald Holder's lights, either. You might recall flashes of Nate's exchanges with a surly booth operator, but only because Angela's portrayal of her so perfectly replicates the aggressive ennui seemingly every single one of them in real world is afflicted with.
Everyone involved is obviously totally committed to it, which is hearteningin a theater this small, you can tell instantly if someone isn't giving it his or her all, but everyone here is. Their hard work is far and away the best argument for the evening, but it's tough not to wish they were helped more by the material. Maybe, now that the proof of concept is out of the way, the writers will concoct another a cappella musical that, unlike this one, is a musical first and a cappella second? I wouldn't mind seeing that. But if that kind of theatre, which is about something more than silly, artificial gimmicks, is your thing, the modest virtues of In Transit aren't enough to keep it from stalling in the tunnel.