Crossover: A New Pop Musical is Virtual Theatre Worth Your Time.

From top left clockwise Chelsea Cylinder, Boris Dansberry, Ali, Walker, and Taylor J. Mitchell. Virtual Production Design by Tristan Horan

Theater, live theater, and those who make their careers and livelihoods in theater have been decimated by Covid-19. Many artists have searched for ways to continue their work in some way. Producing virtual shows has been a way for many actors, writers, directors and other artists to forge ahead during these dark times. While this is a great solution to our current situation, it’s generally less than ideal. I long for the days when I can be in the same room with performers who are sharing the same space. Good actors performing via zoom can raise the performance above the level of a table read but they can never achieve the connection that is forged with each other and with a live audience virtually. Crossover, a new musical by Danielle E. Moore is positioned better than most shows to succeed virtually, and the best example I’ve seen of a show overcoming the obstacles of theatre of the virtual.

What works in Crossover‘s favor is that it is about a televised singing competition in the style of American Idol. Many sections of the script take place as segments of the show and those in particular work well. The plot revolves around four finalists that tie for the west coast slot on the show. They are given the choice of splitting their allotted time on the show separately, giving them each 1 minute as solo artists, or to form a group so they have the 4 minutes allotted for the west coast semifinalist. They opt to form a group, ‘Four-Way Tie’. The hook of the competition is that every week they have to perform in a different style, the aim is to crown someone who has the most “crossover” appeal. Each of the four women specializes in a different genre. Reggie is a Soul singer, Max is into EDM, Hallie is the Country singer, and KC is the Rocker. What sways them to reluctantly team up is the idea that they can utilize each others strengths to help them all maximize their “crossover ” credibility.

The shows strengths are it’s cast and the songs. All four of the leads Taylor J. Mitchell as Reggie, Boris Dansberry as Max Green, Chelsea Cylinder as KC, and Ali Walker as Hallie all create individual characters that are not simply their style of singing. The four characters develop a relationship out of necessity which turns into a friendship. It’s a testament to the writing and the performers that that friendship doesn’t seem forced, rushed or false. All of the characters are given something to do outside of their interactions as the group. Two of the group are also given a romantic relationship together. These side stories for each are part of what gives their characters depth and the romantic relationship gives the show it’s heart. Only the character of KC whose side story is that her mother was a very successful musician and has never encouraged her seems to be let down. Her mother makes an appearance but the moment felt like it needed to be built up a little more. There are actually several areas of the script that could be tweaked, but in most cases those tweaks would really work only in a live situation. I suspect those moments where something more would drive the emotion or the scene home would contain that element if the actors could actually interact.

Moore’s songs are very impressive they are slightly let down by the virtual experience. I was able to airplay the performance from my phone to my TV, but four vocal performances mixed via video, as abely as it is done, the lyrics just get lost. One can tell that in a live situation all of the performances from Four-Way Tie would be knockouts, virtually, they suffer from being indistinguishable. This is the challenge for anyone trying to mount a musical in this era of virtual performances, you are at the mercy of every single persons audio/video equipment, from cast recording themselves to audience playing it back in different ways. It’s a challenge and Crossover does it’s best to meet it, but the vocal complexities of these four part songs is to much at times. What works much better are the duets and solos songs. I sort of hate to single any of the leads out because they are all really good, but the performer that really stuck out for me was Boris Dansberry as Max. They have a duet with Donovan Lockett who plays Max’s idol Shea Stone that was very impressive. Their solo performance was also my favorite of the 4 leads in their introductions to us. It seemed to me that Boris’ voice came through the best audio wise, it may have been their equipment or the pitch of their voice or my equipment being best suited to them, but things were noticeably clearer when they were singing. Taylor J. Mitchell’s voice seemed hardest hit by technology in the group songs, but then was also quite strong in her solo “Traitor”, which was her moment to shine.

So yes Crossover does fall prey to some of the downfalls of virtual theater, but it does a surprisingly good job of overcoming many of them as well. Praise is deserved for director Amanda Pasquini for finding the best way to mitigate the worst of the usual pitfalls. Using creative staging for some of the songs, having the actors in profile, mixing things up here and there keeping it from looking too static. The show also uses graphics and editing in creative ways to keep things looking interesting and fresh avoiding that ‘Zoom’ look – Credit to Graphic Designer Jeff Buterbaugh and editor Tristan Horan for their work. Crossover had it’s work premiere in September as part of the 2020 Philadelphia Fringe Festival and will be available to live stream Saturday December 12th 7:00 PM CST as part of the 2020 Rogue Theater Festival. Tickets are $12.00 and are available through the Rogue Theater Festival’s Show Page here