Justin Guarini and Telly Leung in Broadway’s first a cappella musical, “”In Transit.” | JOAN MARCUS
BY DAVID KENNERLEY | “In Transit” bills itself as “Broadway’s first a cappella musical,” destined to “make history.” Indeed, under the guidance of director/ choreographer Kathleen Marshall, the skillful cast delivers terrific renditions of jazzy pop tunes and power ballads with nary a woodwind, string, or drum.
Instead, the ensemble, alternately led by beatbox masters Steven “HeaveN” Cantor and Chesney Snow (the role is so taxing they alternate shows), provides the musical accompaniment along with the singing. Not to mention all manner of wild, percussive beats and sound effects. Every sound is produced by a human voice.
And what better setting to showcase this art form than the New York subway system, where the polyrhythms of the city and its restless denizens often converge to create a glorious symphony. In this subterranean realm, a steady stream of yearning, alienated humanity is bent on getting from point A to point B. But what about the journey?
The dynamic cacophony of restless New Yorkers in transit, rendered a cappella
For skeptics wondering whether a Broadway tuner can float without the aid of an orchestra, “In Transit” firmly whisks any doubts aside. Deke Sharon (“Pitch Perfect”) is the vocal arranger.
It may also be the first musical in which the book, music, and lyrics together are credited to four creators: Kristen Anderson-Lopez (Oscar winner for “Frozen”), James-Allen Ford, Russ Kaplan, and Sara Wordsworth.
Yet this too-many-cooks approach may explain the disjointed book and awkward tone. Is this a savvy, gritty, slice-of-life urban drama or a frothy, Disneyesque comic fairy tale? Is it a love letter to New Yorkers or an infomercial for the MTA? Like those frantic subway riders in transit, it’s neither here nor there.
One moment, the sassy token booth clerk (or whatever they call them nowadays) inexplicably struts down a runway wearing a gown made of yellow MetroCards, and the audience squeals with delight. Later, a sketchy guy urinates on the subway platform, and the audience squirms.
“In Transit” attempts to quash stereotypes but there’s just no avoiding them in such multi-character endeavors (a cast of 11 plays more than 40 roles, if you count train announcers). First we meet Jane (a highly appealing Margo Seibert), an aspiring actress hoping for her big break, marking time as an office temp. Then there’s the good-looking former Wall Street whiz (James Snyder) now down on his luck, who becomes smitten with Jane. There’s also Ali (Erin Mackey), reeling from her breakup with Dave (David Abeles), who has since moved on.
Then there’s the stylish gay couple, recently engaged and working on communication issues. Trent (an exceptional Justin Guarini, of “American Idol” fame) is still closeted with respect to his family, while his partner, Steven (Telly Leung, from “Glee”), threatens to call off the wedding if he won’t come out to his Christian-right mom. Trent refers to Steven as his roommate.
The show dutifully checks off the all-too-familiar tropes of underground travel in New York: sardine-packed cars, unexplained delays, nasty smells, homeless people, garbled PA announcements, Dr. Zizmor posters, manspreading, and so on.
It helps that the production is staged in the relatively small, proscenium-free Circle in the Square Theatre, increasing the intimacy that matches the a cappella sensibility. Donyale Werle’s set is a dead ringer for an MTA subway station and features an ingenious conveyor belt running down the length of the stage, replicating the forward motion of a subway train.
The wispy story threads don’t carry much weight, and you can see major plot resolutions from several train stops away. The “together but alone” theme is driven home with a sledgehammer, while the message of learning to be “happy in the moment” is nothing we haven’t heard before.
Despite the bumps, “In Transit” is a fun ride if you focus on the wonders of the a cappella sound effects, music, and lyrics. Jane’s song about temping until landing a plum acting gig is particularly catchy: “I do what I don’t really do, so I can do what I do,” she croons, with a dash of self-deprecation.
Also a hoot is the number “Four Days Home,” sung while Trent and Steven are visiting Trent’s hometown, deep in the red state of Texas. “We’re in separate rooms. The frustration starts to pile up. All our porn is on the cloud and it won’t come through on dial-up!”
IN TRANSIT | Circle in the Square Theatre, 235 W. 50th St. | Performance schedule varies | $89-$159 at InTransitBroadway.com | One hr., 40 mins. with no intermission