Yet however gimmicky and commercially cynical as it might sound, "In Transit" very quickly wears down your defenses. This is a modest show created and performed with palpable affection and infectious enthusiasm; the show's creators -- Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Russ Kaplan, James-Allen Ford and Sara Wordsworth -- wants us to love a cappella as much as they so evidently do.
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Subways are for singing, at least in the world of "In Transit," the charming a cappella musical of metropolitan life that's rapturously harmonious, even when the times aren't. The likable, lightweight tuner, which had a run in 2010 at 59E59 - and an even earlier version as "Along the Way" at 2003's New York Fringe Festival - evokes musicals and revues that celebrate the buzz of being young, hopeful and ever-striving in New York. Okay, so the storylines go back to the days when you still used tokens. But what gives "In Transit" its new swipe is what's not there - the orchestra - and what is - glorious, pitch-perfect voices, set to Deke Sharon's rich and expressive arrangements.
The appeal of paying Broadway prices for such an experience can be debated. More to the point, In Transit, while boasting engaging performances, features cliched characters and situations too bland for a sitcom, let alone theater.
Comedy also abounds, and the jokes are plentiful, even if they don't all land. Sure, everyone gets the pizza rat quip - that video went viral around the world - but are non-New Yorkers going to appreciate references to Dr. Zizmor, manspreading, or the dreaded empty car? The laughter for these was sparse, making it clear who in the audience was a tourist and who were the locals. Some of the more well-known pop culture references, including name-checking Lin-Manuel Miranda, Pippa Middleton, and Duck Dynasty, elicited a stronger reaction.
"In Transit" manages to create a reality-distortion field that left me feeling the MTA isn't the hostile environment I know it all too well to be. For that alone, go ahead and swipe your MetroCard.
Every now and then, as yet another peppy cliché prances across the stage of the Circle in the Square Theater, you may pause to ponder the pioneering achievement of "In Transit," the singing portrait of New York City subway travelers, which opened on Sunday night. After all, what you're listening to often gleams with the blended polyphony of a good-size band. Yet not an instrument has been used in the performance of this a cappella musical, staged by the Tony-winning director and choreographer Kathleen Marshall. Everything we hear, as we are told in a (sung) preshow announcement, is created by human voices. Acknowledging this is rather like admiring the ingenuity that must have gone into a sentimental picture of a rainbow, perhaps with the Care Bears in the foreground, rendered entirely in bottle caps. It's definitely something to have achieved such visual specificity out of bottle caps. But it's still a picture of a rainbow with Care Bears.
This Broadway iteration, sprucely directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall and with a charming ensemble, better showcases the book and score (by writers and vocal arrangers who have worked on Frozen and the Pitch Perfectmovies). But the central problem remains: harmonic overload. If you listen to Pentatonix on repeat and own the box set of Glee, you might spend 100 minutes in bliss. The rest of us will grow tired of numbers that sound like '70s sitcom theme songs or advertising jingles. This is where I get off.
The 100-minute musical - really, a collection of songs about mostly unrelated people in career and romantic transition - is meant to be inspired by the rhythms of the subway. This comes through best with the rumbling beats and virtuosic sound effects made by Boxman, a wise subway eccentric and one-man band played by beatbox artist Steven "HeaveN" Cantor. Otherwise, it's a stretch to find the subway-rhythm idea as more than a pretext for getting together 11 actors to portray 40 very sincere and familiar characters - the struggling actress/office temp (Margo Seibert); the obsessed dumped girlfriend (Erin Mackey); the engaged gay guys (Justin Guarini and Telly Leung), one of whom is in the closet to his pious but kindly Texas mother (Moya Angela); and the former Wall Street guy (James Snyder) fired for pressing "send all" on an indiscreet email and now, unbelievably, left without enough to take the subway.
Late in the show, somebody does relieve himself upstage on the subway platform, but otherwise this is not only a crime-free but a drama-free zone. Whether above ground or below ground, the "In Transit" characters lead one to re-title the show "Theaters Are for Sleeping." Life here is so sanitized that the subway musician known as Boxman (Steven "HeaveN" Cantor brilliantly replicates the screech and squeal of the train cars) never asks for a dime, gives sage advice, and swipes his MetroCard for those passengers less fortunate.
The songs are as generic as those descriptions suggest, and - notwithstanding the efforts of the talented ensemble - nothing in Marshall's uninspired staging on Donyale Werle's highly romanticized and sanitized subway station set makes them of even passing interest while, say, waiting for the train. It's hard to imagine how this show made it to Broadway, but I suspect it will be on the express train to the next station.
I can't square the musical sophistication of In Transit with its narrative hackwork. Kathleen Marshall's staging, with its let's-get-past-it rather than the let's-explore-it approach, doesn't help: It's definitely an express. (Even so, the show is a bit too long at 100 minutes without intermission.) If all of Marshall's cleverness as a director and choreographer goes toward smoothing and polishing the surfaces, perhaps that's because in a cotton-candy musical like this one there's nothing underneath. The cast, for instance, is admirably diverse, yet from the show's portrait you would think that the New York subway in 2016 represented a utopian post-racial environment. Nor is anyone poor, except for one smelly homeless person who is the butt of an obvious joke, and the once-rich white guy who is learning his lesson. Donyale Werle's charming set, with its treadmill tracks and mosaic motifs, gives the MTA a Museum of Transportation gloss, but it made me wonder, as did the show in its entirety: Have you been down there recently? And have you been up here?
"In Transit," an original musical depicting a variety of ordinary New Yorkers who take the subway while in pursuit of their various goals, marks Broadway's first a cappella musical - and the results aren't so great, in spite of the meticulous vocal engineering.