By Kyle Osborne
There are moments in the new musical 'Crossing,' currently in its world premiere at Signature Theatre, that are nothing less than inspired. Not to mention inspriing. And while it feels like a final sanding of a few rough edges would do it some good, the musical gets the most important thing right--yes, that would be the music. A deep cast of accomplished (and well known to Signature audiences) singers keeps things on track.
The lights come up on platform at a train station. Nine strangers from different eras in American history are all waiting to go--somewhere. For the modern day backpacker, with his iPad in hand, it's a trip to Paris, for the African-American woman from the Civil Rights, era, it's a journey to the South, to join the protests and the cause. A 1929 Stock Broker, a World War I soldier preparing to ship out, accompanied by his worried mother, etc.
An overly long ensemble number kicks things off, with the characters each getting their moment, establishes that this will be the kind of brief historical presentation that one might see in the visitor's center of a national landmark. The aforementioned characters are essentially presented as archetypes (indeed, they don't even have proper names, just descriptions) which makes it harder to forge an emotional connection with them. That, and a rather busy sort of "toss-the beanbag" construction keeps things moving, but generally not delving too far below the surface,.
What works are several of the songs. "Follow The Drinking Gourd" pairs the "Civil Rights Woman" with a kind of floating character (Unknown Woman) played by Nova Y. Payton, for a rousing, gorgeous duet that would have inspired a standing ovation, had an applause break been built in. As it stands, the dialog starts immediately after the end of each song. One supposes this is to make things "flow better," but not being able to express appreciation for Payton's amazing performance in the moment was an audience buzz kill. By the way, Payton has a big voice and can be a real powerhouse, but she really dialed things into an intimate zone that allowed her to express emotions in a nuanced way.
Composer/Lyricist Matt Connor has written some of the sweetest orchestral arrangements I think I've ever heard in that room. The horns in "Follow The Drinking Gourd" and a couple of other songs sounded like heaven. Well placed piano flourishes that happen during some in-between spaces were also an aural treat. It would be great to have less electric guitar and drum fills, when the horn arrangements and the acoustic instruments are this good. So good.
Austin Colby's high lonesome voice in "Lovely Day" sounded as sweet as Cliff Edward's rendition of "When You Wish Upon A Star" in 1940's "Pinocchio." Tracy Lynn Olivera is possibly the most chameleon-like actress of all the Signature "regulars." As a War Bride from the 1940's, she's like a picture come to life. Her vocal on "Fly" was emotional and memorable.
The set itself is sparse, but the traffic on it does get a bit busy. The audience's attention on an actor downstage is sometimes broken by the squeaking boards behind them, as upstage actors try to step lightly as they cross the stage.
Musicals have been noticeably lacking in the DC theatre scene lately. To have an original work, especially one with so many masterful musical moments, is the right thing at the right time.
"Crossing" continues at Signature Theatre through November 24th. You can listen to the songs, watch videos and purchase tickets at: http://www.signature-theatre.org/2013-14-season