The Hard-Boiled Sweetness of a Musical Made for New York: ‘In Transit’ Comes to Broadway
The Daily Beast
December 12, 2016
It’s a tough job, filling the onetime stage of the masterful Fun Home, but In Transit is a brave and innovative, and mostly winning, successor.
This musical looks at lives criss-crossing mostly under the streets of New York, and thirsty, and thwarted, ambitions of the city’s denizens.
The most wonderful thing is that In Transit—with book, music and lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez, James-Allen Ford, Russ Kaplan, and Sara Wordsworth—is sung a cappella (the arrangements are by Deke Sharon), and sung so richly and well you imagine hearing musical instruments where there are none.
Donyale Werle’s ingenious set features a subway station, Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, with chairs shuttling on and off the set-up and down a moving middle section to signify trains.
The set is malleable: Without any major changes of scenery, and just the slick direction and choreography of Kathleen Marshall, our imaginations configure it as apartments, the street, an office, a Texas small town and church, or a raucous bar. The electronic signboards are used with versatility too.
Overseeing all the comings and goings, the victories (not many) and disappointments (far more) is Boxman (the wonderful Chesney Snow), a beat-boxer who beseeches Broadway hopeful Jane (Margo Seibert, who our audience rooted for so much, her fist-pumps and disappointments became audibly ours) to listen to the rhythm of the city, and to be inspired and rejuvenated by it, even when it is doing all it can to beat you down.
Everyone is questing for something in the city, everyone wants something—even Pizza Rat, who makes an honorary cameo—and those hopes bubble away privately in the minds of those sharing subway carriages every day, trying to maintain personal space, stink-eyeing anyone who invades it.
The opening number, “Deep Beneath The City”/“Not There Yet” is a dizzying ballet of seat-squiring, disembarking, tripping up, and small cris de coeur. There are so many people on the subway, all wanting to be as private as possible: In Transit aims to make a range of unheard voices and unseen lives real.
Boxman sees all the characters pass through the station, helps, and advises them. There is Jane, whose dreams of stage stardom are offset by the daily reality of having to do admin work, and captured in the song, “Do What I Do.”
Trent (Justin Guarini) and Steven (Telly Leung) are preparing to spend time in Texas at Trent’s mother’s (Moya Angela) home. The problem is this deeply religious woman doesn’t know her son is gay, in love with Steven, and that the two are about to be married.
The song “Four Days Home” is a mini-masterpiece, that is funny—watch out tourists, they sing: gay male intimacy alert—and moving, about being in the closet and the cost of that; and then the number becomes deliciously outsized as it evokes the religious prejudice and perky pie-making of the small town itself, right through to the two exhausted men’s return back to the city.
Meanwhile, Nate (James Snyder) has lost his job, and—the turnstile not turning as it should, and the ticket machine rejecting his beat-up bills—life and the city are against him. His fratty brattiness is the most off-putting, but Snyder’s newly humbled circumstances may make him a better person—especially when he meets Jane.
That’s if he can get out of a very negative relationship spiral with Althea, the ticket agent at the station—the excellent Moya Angela again. The dating dance at a bar is evoked as a slow-motion physical contact sport in the very funny “Wingman,” led by the magisterially strutting Chris (Nicholas Ward).
Love is the great insoluble for so many in the city, and another mystery in In Transit is whether Ali (Erin Mackey) will ever get over her ex Dave (David Abeles); her two solo songs—“Saturday Night Obsession” and the “Moving Song”—are variously uproarious and heartbreaking.
She uprooted her life for Dave, cannot stop ringing him, and is wrapped up in a blanket, rolling on the floor, beset by torments, which she tries to offset by running. But even that has become compulsive.
The propulsive genius of In Transit tails off a little toward the end, and with it some of the storyline threads. But one of its standout songs, which celebrates—utterly counter-intuitively for a musical—the good sense of giving up on your dreams, well emblemizes the musical’s own distinction.
In Transit vividly showcases life in the city, and the brutal, ludicrous ways New York tortures and rewards and punishes its residents. The best thing about it—in all its smarts and jokes, and pointed wit of the songs—is that it makes anyone who isn’t a New Yorker want to be one, or appreciate what makes New York special.
By extension, it shows why the people who live in New York are special too—in all their own very special ways. It makes no special pleas for understanding, it is not dripping in irony. And it has a sweet heart wrapped in a hard fist.
As its title suggests, In Transit shows that for good and bad, life goes loudly on in New York, day in, day out, and the subway continues to convey us to personal and professional dates with destiny. The keenly-felt songs—“Keep It Goin,” “Getting There”—convey this dust-yourself-down-and-get-on spirit, helping make In Transit an honest and beautifully sung testament to New York, and the surging, searching, and imperfect humanity within it.