It’s probably too early in the season to be bandying around the word “best” in regard to new productions. So in lieu of this appellation, I’d like to suggest that the Transport Group’s musical at the Connelly Theater, Crossing Brooklyn — which features a book and lyrics by Laura Harrington and music by Jenny Giering — is probably the most heartbreaking and deeply felt musical that will be seen in New York during 2007-2008.
The show focuses on A.J. (Bryce Ryness) and Des (Jenny Fellner), a husband and wife coping with the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Both are teachers, but while A.J. has returned to his post in a Manhattan grade school, Des has been unable to leave the borough that they call home to return to the classroom. Memories from the day of the attacks haunt her: from having to protect her first grade charges at the school in the shadow of the World Trade Center to the trek home that she made across the Brooklyn Bridge — a landmark that had once been the symbol of the couple’s love.
Unable to escape her memories and fears, Des has barricaded herself in Brooklyn, just barely able to make it to Prospect Park, where she works as a volunteer. Des’ only other haven in the borough is an Italian café where its co-owners (Ken Triwush, Jason F. Williams) are by turns supportive and jokingly flirtatious. Crossing charts one day in Des and A.J.’s life — one that proves cathartic not only for the characters, but for theatergoers as well.
Harrington’s book sensitively explores not only Des’ phobia (and one specific event from 9/11), but also A.J.’s frustration and anger with the changes that he has witnesses in his wife; emotions that nearly lead to an affair with Madeline (Blythe Gruda), a flirtatious clerk at a bookstore that A.J. frequents. At work, A.J.’s also dealing with the fallout of 9/11 with the precocious and emotionally hardened Kevin (J. Bradley Bowers), a student whose father was killed in the World Trade Center.
In Jack Cummings III’s gentle and exquisitely fluid production, the events of Des and A.J.’s day (along with sounds from the day of the attacks) shift across the stage with an almost cinematic sweep. Sandra Goldmark’s ingeniously conceived and simple set design — nine brushed metal display cases that look like school-desks and ropes pulled taut from floor to ceiling which all are shifted by the performers — allows Cummings to achieve cutaways between locations, and also split screens (the effect is aided enormously by R. Lee Kennedy’s spot-on lighting design).
Cummings’ staging is so effective and his ability to maintain a mood of almost unbearable pain and sadness throughout the 105-minute intermissionless piece is so complete, that one almost doesn’t mind the occasional stumbles in Harrington and Giering’s work, for instance, a sequence in the park where two birdwatchers (played with gentle good-humor and sagacity by Susan Lehman and Kate Welman) offer advice to Des, suggesting that she take lessons from the birds and learn to fly once again. During this scene (in which the ropes of Goldmark’s set are pulled to sharp angles creating something of a maze), a homeless man (a beautifully understated Clayton Dean Smith) also rants at Des, portentously.
Even in this scene, though, Giering’s elusive yet somehow accessible melodies captivate. The score blends theatricality and intricacy with pop sounds, and Giering’s music (gracefully orchestrated by Mary-Mitchell Campbell) can bring the subway to life (as A.J. commutes to Manhattan) and echo Des’ mental confusion (Harrington’s almost stream-of-conscious lyrics shine in these instances) both on the day of the attacks and in the present.
At the center of the musical are two impeccably sung and well-nuanced performances from Fellner and Ryness. Not only do these performers delve into the sympathetic tumult of the characters’ worlds, they uncompromisingly allow Des and A.J.’s less flattering sides to come to the fore periodically, giving Crossing Brooklyn the verity and edge that makes it so enormously satisfying.