Arlington’s Tony Award-winning Signature Theatre is perhaps best known for its commitment to developing and nurturing new musicals and emerging musical theatre talent. Although its 2012-2013 season does not boast a full production of a new musical – something that has been a staple of its recent seasons – , it does offer a ‘first glimpse’ at Crossing, a work that the theatre commissioned from its own Matt Conner as part of its multi-year American Musical Voices Project. This one-weekend only event, directed by Signature’s Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer, allowed audiences to hear some of the songs Mr. Conner has developed for this piece and small pieces of Grace Barnes’ accompanying book in concert format. A cast of nine singers (all remaining on book) gave voice to the new work backed by an incredible eight-piece band under the direction of Gabriel Mangiante.
Conner, composer of Nevermore, Partial Eclipse, and The Hollow – all of which have been staged in some format at Signature – gives a powerful voice to ordinary people from different eras of American history all meeting at a train station with a decidedly pop-rock score (orchestrated by August Eriksmoen). Although this piece is clearly a work in progress (having only been previously presented in workshop format at Shenandoah University in 2011) with ample room to grow and improve, there are several songs that suggest this musical could become something quite great. Among them are the blues and gospel-infused “After the Rain,” sung to perfection by the incredible beltress Priscilla Cuellar who gave the performance of the night as the Homeless Woman, and the compelling civil rights era “Follow the Drinking Gourd.” Nova Y. Payton’s technically proficient vocals on the latter piece highlighted Connor’s knack for an interesting melody and socially-conscious lyrics. The rousing opener “Here I Am” is also a promising piece of music, which sets the stage for all of these distinct individuals, all with different stories, coming together.
It would be difficult (and perhaps pointless) to make any remarks on Barnes’ book as the focus of this concert was naturally and understandably on Conner’s music. I will say that the idea of people crossing paths across time and space is an interesting one and I look forward to seeing how it plays out in full production. If Conner can make his music more time-period specific for each of his characters and incorporate additional music styles into his already strong score, it’s likely the piece will be even stronger once finished and serve to highlight the differences and commonalities across all of the characters.
Schaeffer deserves kudos for giving a voice to emerging composers like Matt Conner and giving them chances to create new works, which we can all enjoy. His commitment to new works, as demonstrated with Crossing: In Concert as well as other new musicals in recent years, is a rarity in our current theatre landscape, which thrives on revivals. Conner shows promise as a composer and I look forward to seeing what will become of Crossing in the future.
Running Time: 60 minutes with no intermission.
Crossing: In Concert was presented at Signature Theatre- 2200 Campbell Avenue in Arlington, VA- on October 20-21, 2012. For tickets to other performances in Signature’s 2012-2013 season, call the box office at (703) 820-9771 or purchase them online.