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Beware the musical with no choreographer. Oh, sure, you don’t think you want to see a sequined tapping extravaganza. But if the characters do nothing but stand around and sing, chances are the show is going nowhere. And that’s a real problem when your musical is set in a train station.
Crossing is the first of three new musicals premiering at Signature this season. Let us hope it is by far the worst. Nine actors of varying ability spout clichéd lyrics about life transitions set to ho-hum music, and even Nova Y. Payton, the singer who greatly elevated the theater’s productions of Hairspray and Dreamgirls, can’t save this one.
Not that she doesn’t try. Payton has been cast as the guardian angel, and she does sort of prevent an Anna Karenina scenario—by which I mean she talks someone out of jumping, not that this musical includes Tolstoyan character development and a plot. It does not.
The fantastical premise of Crossing is that eight characters from the past hundred years sit waiting at the same American train station, but interact with each other without questioning their anachronistic accessories, such as elaborate hats, silver cigarette cases, and iPads. There’s a mother sending her son off to fight in World War I, a Civil Rights marcher headed to Washington, and a woman welcoming her daughter home from Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple. Tracy Lynn Olivera plays an English woman who regrets marrying an American G.I. and is raising a young son (John Ray) in the States after World War II. As they chat, some drop hints of troubled lives beyond the station. Dates printed next to the characters names in the program provide vital clues as to who’s who—for example, “Wealthy Man 1929” must be the guy inclined to jump in front of the train.
Vocally, the show peaks early, when Payton and the outstanding newcomer Inés Nassara (who plays the Civil Rights marcher) face each other and harmonize on “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” a moving ballad linking the Underground Railroad to the Freedom Trains of 1963. It’s about as good as the music and lyrics get: There’s a brief interlude when the actors create a series of percussive sounds by clapping and pounding on the floor, and then it’s back to Conner’s bland melodies, accented by misplaced marimba solos and the occasional lovely piano cadence. (Gabriel Mangiante is the keyboardist and conductor.)
Conner was also one half of the creative team behind The Hollow, the 2011 Ichabod Crane musical that debuted at Signature to befuddled yawns. This is a much lower-budget endeavor, with no set other than the small platform, the clapboard façade of a train station, and several benches. Instead of Hunter Foster, Conner’s partner and book writer for Crossing is the Scottish director Grace Barnes. That may explain—though certainly not excuse—why the dialogue seems inspired by the CliffsNotes of 20th century American history. But any English-speaking playwright should know better than to have characters prattle on about butterflies being a sign of change and “what if” scenarios. (Unless Signature has some sort of crosspromotional deal going on with the National Theatre’s ongoing production of If/Then.) There are also, for good measure, a ballad about the robins and bluebirds of spring (sung by a toque-wearing 2013 backpacker bound for Paris), the wealthy man’s ode to passing ships, and Olivera’s uninspiring number about flying away home.
“When will the train come?” the little boy asks Payton, who wanders the stage touching shoulders with a concerned hand, Roma Downey–style. “It will come when you’re ready,” she tells him. Crossing clocks in at less than 90 minutes, no intermission, but it won’t take nearly that long for you to pine for that train whistle to sound.