Drove back to Bayswater on Friday night to attend a production from Lightbox Productions for the first time and I was introduced to a new musical in the process, the Australian premiere of the all acappella show In Transit. Acappella music tends to be an acquired taste as most audiences are accustomed to songs where vocalists are being accompanied by instruments from the brass, string, woodwind and percussion families but what people tend to forget is that the human voice can be a musical instrument in its own right. Case in point, modern acts like Boyz II Men, Bobby McFerrin and Take 6 have made careers off of the genre, it has been utilised by artists like Charlie Puth, The Corrs, Human Nature, the Backstreet Boys and Jason Derulo in certain songs and has even influenced a hit movie franchise, Pitch Perfect. Like Pitch Perfect, In Transit quickly established itself as a love letter to the genre and how the voice was put into action throughout the spectacle’s run time, blew my and the audience’s mind from the minute the first note was sang, all the while telling the many stories of the everyday New York commuter.
Bringing In Transit to Australia was history in the making for our country’s theatre community and it couldn’t have come to fruition without three groups of people, Lightbox as a whole for being the first company, amateur or professional, to present it down under, the original creators of the show who had some input in getting it done and the constant hard work of the production team. To start with, we had Peter Verhagen and Madeline Connolly who shared the director’s chair and together, along with assistant director Toby Thornton, they were able to bring the world famous rail transportation system of New York right onto the Knox stage so the audience can experience what the daily commute of millions is like in one of the world’s biggest cities. With the combining of their strong creative forces, P. Verhagen and Connolly presented the crowd with a riveting and realistic directorial feat that saw their performers tell many all too relatable stories that could have us laugh, cry and dream through hindsight eyes all the while watching the wonders of NYC come to life all around them through a technological subway platform set that could peer into the windows of the work, night and home life of the native New Yorker.
Connolly also had her choreographer’s hat for the production and while major dance numbers with routines showcasing the glitz and glamour of Broadway were scarce, they still kept the audience enticed through its hip hop influenced elements. Some numbers saw each dancer smoothly glide to the music wherever the flow took them like a hand out of a car window surfing through the wind, while others saw the dancers pop, lock, break and bounce like nobody’s business with cool, calm and collected freestyles in a choreographic presentation that was electric and elevating. Getting the chance to musically direct In Transit was a dream come true for Isaac Stott, an acappella enthusiast and vocal virtuoso, and having known him as well as his love for the show for many years, witnessing his work on the production was well worth the wait and everything any fan of the musical could have hoped for. Stott’s arrangement of each vocalists’ melodies and harmonies was nothing short of a masterpiece and a masterclass on how the instrument of voice should be practiced as the performers who were new to the acappella stylings were raised to new heights in their singing abilities while those who had been in the acappella game for years stayed loyal and faithful to their roots. No harmony fell out of key, no song fell flat and no performer fell short of greatness with Stott behind the baton and his triumphant and trailblazing methods resulted in some of the best musical direction Melbourne’s amateur theatre circuit will see this year and could easily be showered with accolades come award season.
Despite the fact that In Transit is set in a city of over eight million people, the show surprisingly had a cast of just thirteen performers, many of whom would play multiple roles. However, it quickly became evident that this small cast had what it took to effectively tell the many intriguing stories that inhabit the millions who board the MTA train network every day. All thirteen individuals on stage formed the ensemble and portrayed leads whether they were major, supporting or featured so I’ll do my best to make sure they each get a mention, especially since many of them possessed formidable acappella skills I never realised before. First, we’ll start with Jade Leigh and Jessie Yu, who may not have had the largest roles as Grace and April respectively but the vocal score would not have been the same without their dynamic and divergent skills, which constantly shined through throughout every number and scene they were present in. Tobiah Elliott knew how to let her hair down and have a good time in her portrayal of Nina, introducing elements of fun and freedom to the spectacle whenever she graced the stage as her own unique character and all the background characters she played. Rianna Shoemaker added to the show’s fun demeanour too as Sophia but I was particular moved by her brief yet beautiful performance as Kathy as it was one that provided closure to one of In Transit’s main story arcs and encompassed the art of moving on and new beginnings in such an effective manner. Julian Aziz Liu and Omar Moustafa brought their A-game to the production through their main roles of ex boyfriend Dave and wing man sports fan Chris respectively as their years of character work and vocal chops blended right in with the complex score and their main story arcs as the guys we all know but don’t necessarily want to be around all the time in performances that were optimistic and opulent.
Every major role and their respective story arcs were all massive standouts throughout In Transit’s one act New York love letter. In their main portrayals of Trent and Steven, Jordan Ratumu and Daniel Kim were perfectly paired as they continuously complimented each other in the harmony department and had undeniable chemistry as two engaged lovers trapped in the closet by Trent’s conservative mother but proud to love in the big city regardless in performances that were equally moving and motivational, especially for the wider queer community. Joshua Meadows was outstanding in his portrayal of Nate, a down on his luck, recently unemployed banker who struggles to make ends meet both financially and emotionally, shining a light on the mental struggles men suffer daily in a powerful and powerhouse take that men dealing with similar struggles can look up to fondly and know that everything will be okay. As Nate’s newly single sister Ali who takes up running as a release from her heartbreak but ends up running into herself in the process, Melanie Verhagen struck a chord with me due to her character’s relatability for young adult romantics everywhere and her undisputed realism to inform her borderline comical yet crafty and commanding portrayal that gives the audience hope and inspiration of life after love. As for Jade Bohni, her main performance of no nonsense MTA attendant Althea and her secondary portrayal of Trent’s conservative mother explored her duality as a versatile actress by showing her sarcastic side in one role and her soft side in another despite the latter’s story line. Bohni’s portrayals effectively looked at bitterness on both sides of the spectrum while keeping the human aspect in both roles so we could see the good side of her respective characters, resulting in a performance that was sassy, sweet, stimulating and spellbinding all at the same time.
The queen and king of Lightbox’s production were two performers who were trained on different ends of the performing arts circuit but both brought the best of musical theatre with their portrayals and they were Antoinette Davis in the main role of temp and aspiring actress Jane and Michael Honey in the sole role of In Transit’s narrator and emcee, New York subway’s resident beatboxer Boxman. Davis’ persevering and purposeful portrayal of a Broadway hopeful who is torn between her dreams and her steady temp work with rejection at every turn in the former department clicked with our circuit in a split second and her secondary arc of finding love in the place of fame got us all in our feels as her emotional and prestigious vocal performance took us on a wonderful roller coaster ride that could pluck at the heartstrings of those even outside of the theatre community. We as the audience knew we were in for a real treat from the moment Honey opened his mouth and it’s safe to say that his hustle and flow of beats and blips and the rhythm divine blew us away every second of his magnetic and masterful portrayal. He acted like our own private New York tour guide for the masses through his musical telling of his beloved city’s stories and it was a testament to the groundbreaking impression that acappella has made in theatre and with Honey leading the way, it can continue leaving an imprint on us for generations to come.
Lightbox Productions took a massive risk with In Transit as it was not only the Australian premiere of the show but also you can count on one hand how many productions of it have been done outside of New York. However, the company swiftly crushed any doubts and lived up to the hype and high expectations that were placed upon them by supplying the audience with a musical presentation a larger demographic can relate to with direction, vocal arrangements and technical feats that were out of this world. It is safe to say that I was incredibly satisfied with my first outing to Lightbox and I anticipate what marvels they have to offer our community the next time around. Special shoutout to Melanie Verhagen and Daniel Kim for their performances in the show, to Peter Verhagen and Isaac Stott for their work behind the scenes and the rest of the cast and crew associated with In Transit for a highly memorable and historical theatrical experience in our circuit. Congratulations Lightbox on such a stellar season, keep vocalising loud and proud and I know you’ll always get where you’re going to.
#whatsonstagemelb #melbournetheatre #melbournetheatreinfo