A stalled New York City subway carriage serves as a toe-tapping musical Petri dish for six socioeconomically diverse souls in the unique stage-to-screen musical adaptation “Stuck.” Sharing a stylistic template with its 2016 left-coast cousin “La La Land” (which it predated Off-Broadway by a good four years), the film’s 2017 copyright suggests a missed opportunity for momentum that could be made up by the positive word-of-mouth (generated by the film’s fest-circuit delay) for a modest achievement that benefits from a lot of heart and not being like anything else out there.
“I bring a measure of grace to the world,” says Shakespeare-spouting homeless philosopher Lloyd (Spike Lee regular Giancarlo Esposito, well-known to another generation for his work on “Breaking Bad”), a dishevelled yet dignified Greek chorus who sets the stage in song: “It’s a common notion that the universe will shove together people who uniquely offer what the other needs.”
With that, the train on which he seems to live grinds to a halt. “A police emergency,” says the conductor (Mel Johnson Jr., who played Lloyd in the stage version) before mysteriously and decisively locking the doors at either end of the car. Thus are three men and three women, each with their simmering frustrations, clichéd prejudices, and elusive dreams … stuck.
There’s the strapping Ramon (Mexican star Omar Chaparro) seen dashing from his dishwashing job to make the train on his way to another hard-labor gig, no-nonsense Eve (singer-actress Ashanti), and seemingly timid academic Sue (vet Amy Madigan, who also appeared in director Michael Berry’s fine first feature “Frontera”). Joining them are tense Korean dancer Alicia (“Teen Wolf’s” Arden Cho), her geekily half-hearted stalker Caleb (Gerard Canonico, from Broadway’s “Be More Chill”) and, of course, their derelict enabler, the loquacious Lloyd.
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This fine cast talks and sings through a timely, hot-button laundry list of issues that encompass but are not limited to immigration, health insurance, racism, parenthood, social media, and sexual assault: Ramon works three jobs to support a wife and three young daughters, Caleb’s an aspiring artist, Eve’s newly-pregnant, Sue’s lost her son, Alicia’s haunted by an attack, and so on.
Films made in close quarters and/or talk-sung in a parallel reality are nothing new: Roman Polanski excels at the former, and Jacques Demy polished the latter (there’s even another movie that does both, director Reinhard Hauff’s 1996 tube-set German musical “Line 1,” also based on a stage show). What Berry and his troupe bring to the table is a lean focus on getting to their points in a New York minute with pithy dialogue, a broad palette of musical influences and a winning confidence.
Cinematographer Luke Geissbuhler, who has shot multiple documentary and fiction projects for Sacha Baron Cohen, Thom Zimny, and others, leads the craft charge by employing a fluid camera that at once emphasizes and expands the claustrophobic set while capturing unguarded character moments. And the much-maligned Metropolitan Transit Authority gets a well-earned shout-out for their access (and sense of humor), which lends the film an authenticity that sells the musical fantasy.
Stage musical creator Riley Thomas has a fleeting cameo as a ballet studio manager, as does co-composer and lyricist Tim Young as Sue’s son. Madigan, Cho, Esposito, and Chaparro are listed as associate producers, while the film is “in memory of” production accountant Danita “Misha” Turner, “a ray of positive joy,” per producers, who passed away just after filming.
“Oftentimes these connections are neglected or rejected,” sings Lloyd early on to complete the couplet, “but every now and then the universe succeeds.” So, in its sincere and refreshingly scrappy way, does “Stuck.”