Lawrence Toppman

I applauded Kristen Anderson-Lopez’ ‘In Transit.’ Critics mostly have not.

The a cappella musical “In Transit” takes place mostly in the New York City subways. It’s performed on a thrust stage at Broadway’s Circle in the Square Theatre.
The a cappella musical “In Transit” takes place mostly in the New York City subways. It’s performed on a thrust stage at Broadway’s Circle in the Square Theatre.

New York City can be a chilly place in December, and Kristen Anderson-Lopez has found that out.

The former Charlottean and her husband, Robert Lopez, are now adapting their movie hit “Frozen” for a Broadway opening in late 2017. First, though, she and three collaborators and long-time friends opened a cherished project at Circle in the Square Theatre Dec. 11: “In Transit,” the first a cappella Broadway musical.

Reviewers were not generally enthusiastic. Most praised the novelty of the concept, the harmonizing of the cast (all of whom play multiple characters) and the cleverly moving parts of the subway set. They respected the skills of the alternating human beatboxes, Chesney Snow and Steven “HeaveN” Cantor, whose sound effects punctuate non-musical interludes. But the songs and book took their knocks.

The New York Times dismissed it this way: “As yet another peppy cliché prances across the stage, you may pause to ponder the pioneering achievement of “In Transit,” the singing portrait of New York City subway travelers. 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 .... 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.”

Newsday’s brief review of this “sanitized subway musical” ended with this line: “I just wish it were a fraction as challenging theatrically as a morning commute.”

A more supportive Entertainment Weekly writer concluded the show “arrives at its Broadway station safely and soundly, but misses the emotional connection needed to make it an express hit.”

I’m surprised – because I liked it – yet I’m not surprised.

Audiences at the preview I saw in November responded positively (and still do so on social media), because they were almost certainly fans of the “Pitch Perfect” movies. (Deke Sharon, who worked on those films and Lifetime’s “Pitch Slapped,” did outstanding vocal arrangements here.) Yet the show has a gentleness that’s not meant for New York critics or audiences who demand edge to their musicals. If “Hamilton” represents the apex of hipness, “In Transit” isn’t trying for a spot on the chart.

That creates an interesting dilemma, as the show is unlikely to tour regardless of financial success: The sound design would have to be reconfigured for every theater, to make sure voices blended properly and let you hear every lyric. So you almost have to go to New York to see it.

I’m glad I did. Snow (whom I saw as Boxman) added stimulating vocal patterns. The singers ranged from soaring and sassy sopranos to a bass whose voice was so sonorous I promptly broke the 10th commandment.

I found the songs tuneful and, in one case, laugh-out-loud funny. Almost every Disney musical now has a “follow your dream” song. So I welcomed “A Little Friendly Advice,” in which a boss advises a would-be actress to jettison her foolish, unattainable fantasy of stage success and get an office job.

No, the characters aren’t groundbreaking. The dumped fiancée obsessing over her ex seems familiar from sitcoms, though she’s manically amusing. The gay executive who wants to marry but can’t tell his fundamentalist mother must be old-hat to New Yorkers, though men and women all over America still hide their sexual identities.

The show reminded me of the national tour of “The Sound of Music,” which came through Charlotte in 2015. Jack O’Brien directed this down-to-Earth version, the best I have seen. (I include the film.) Charlotte actor Merwin Foard, who played the second male lead, noted producers hoped to take it to Broadway but feared it would get a chilly reception; it has been revived just once there since 1963. Sure enough, the show’s on tour 16 months later without a New York date.

It’s sad to see that kind of thinking reflected in the reception for this show: If you’re sophisticated, you couldn’t enjoy “In Transit.” If you do enjoy it, you can’t be very sharp. That fallacy could leave this warm-hearted musical out in the cold.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

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