The cast of nine lines up straight across the stage and belts for all they’re worth to open “Crossing,” the brand-new musical at Signature Theatre. The setting of this ambitious yet intimate, tuneful yet tissue-thin show may be 150 years of American history (really). But the essence of this collaboration between book writer Grace Barnes and composer-lyricist Matt Conner is pure show tune — the yearning, the questing, the soul that rises indomitably in song.
“Waiting for a sign,” the ensemble sings with fervor. “Something that’s mine. . . . Somewhere, something, someone!”
Your pulse may race as the early songs in Conner’s score pick up the momentum of a downhill train. Conner’s melodies are easy on the ear, and he grabs energy from the usual sources of modern Broadway’s verve: pop-rock and gospel, filtered here through a crisp eight-piece orchestra that expertly revs up the anthems and cushions the ballads. (Gabriel Mangiante is the musical director and conductor.) The score is often a pleasure, and the polished cast sings this music well.
Your heart sinks, though, as you realize how slender the “Crossing” framework is. This 90-minute excursion unfolds on a mystical train-station platform, where nine generic characters from different decades intersect as they wait for whatever is going to happen next in their lives. The figures and their moments are recognizable: A young soldier and his mother in 1917. A wealthy man, 1929. A civil rights marcher, 1963. A backpacker researching destinations on his iPad, 2013.
On this enchanted platform, these archetypal figures talk together across the years, though Barnes and Conner don’t give them much to say. “Crossing” is less interested in history than in character sketches; big historical moments are simply the backdrop for personal crises.
“Lovely day,” the soldier (Austin Colby) and his mother (Peggy Yates) sing to each other as he’s being sent away. They’re both apprehensive, of course, and Conner writes them one of his sweetest songs. It cycles through too many refrains, though, as they run out of things to say in the face of the enormous thing the young man is about to step into.
The horror of Jonestown is briefly invoked, but Jim Jones’s cult is just one passing item cited by the 1977-era character referred to as “Woman With Flowers” (Florence Lacey, sharp as a brittle intellectual and concerned mother) regarding the confounding, exasperating hippie daughter she’s waiting for. Some vignettes foretell doom, and others seem optimistic: “Bed and Breakfast” has the backpacker (Christopher Mueller) belting “I’m on my way!” — one of several songs in which Conner’s rhyming lyrics land heavily — while “Follow the Drinking Gourd” is a swelling gospel anthem meant to steel the nerve of the civil rights marcher en route to the conflicts raging in the South.
Ines Nassara is the marcher, and the duet she sings with Nova Y. Payton (called “Unknown Woman,” the character roams among the others like a ghost that sometimes smacks of Harriet Tubman) is the kind of vocal number that makes you feel like a genuine musical is about to break out. But the string of vignettes in “Crossing,” commissioned by Signature as part of an ongoing creative relationship with Conner and Barnes, leaves it somewhere between a song cycle — which makes you wonder if Conner thought about exploring styles from each of the periods he and Barnes evoke — and a fully dramatized show.
The undercooked quality of the piece is reflected in the fact that director Eric Schaeffer also designed the modest set, a simple, utterly symmetrical train-station platform. Kathleen Geldard capably costumes the actors to represent the range of decades, and there is no faulting the thoughtful, sure-voiced cast. But at this junction in the “Crossing” journey, that train platform is basically working out like a concert stage for Conner’s loosely connected, bighearted songs.
Book by Grace Barnes, music and lyrics by Matt Conner. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Lights, Chris Lee; sound design, Lane Elms. With Chris Sizemore, Tracy Lynn Olivera, and John Ray.
About 100 minutes. Tickets $29-$104. Through Nov. 24 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington.
or visit www.signature-theatre.org.