“Stuck” is a high concept musical that doesn’t have, on paper, much more going for it than that.
Passengers trapped on a subway car, breaking into song, lamenting their woes, expressing their hopes, bickering over race, poverty, immigration, “privilege” and abortion?
Happens every day in the divided, karaoke-crazy USA, right?
But a game cast of players not known for their singing skills, a couple of touching situations and a winning comic moment — half a dozen actually — and “Stuck,” based on a stage musical by Riley Thomas, comes off.
Our host is the first character we meet, a genuine New York character, a seemingly homeless beggar making a survival-level living on the MTA. He is played by the man, the Spike Lee favorite and the force of nature we know as Giancarlo Esposito. And he ensures this slight slice of magical realism gets off on the right foot.
“In the city’s underground, there’s a symphony of sound, a sonic chaos for the lost before they’re found,” he rhymes. He greets passengers, who recoil — just a bit.
He sings softly to himself. Not softly enough.
And he scares people off, what with his shopping cart equipped with a plastic trash can for storage, his over-familiarity with one and all.
And the singing thing.
He busks a little Shakespeare, holding out the empty coffee cup for any spare change. Caleb (Gerard Canonico) offers the man we come to know as “Lloyd the Sayer” cash money “to not do that.”
There’s the dancer (Arden Cho) we’ve seen Caleb watching and drawing — stalking. And the construction worker (Omar Chaparro) whose flashbacks show us the family he’s trying to keep together, the dancer-daughter they’re trying to support, with his job.
The sad, fearful older woman (Amy Madigan) we’ve seen give up an engagement at the piano over grief is here, too. And the testy woman (Ashanti) whose anger won’t be explained until later.
That comes after the train is “Stuck” waiting on the tracks to be cleared ahead.
The songs are a generally forgettable lot, in that modern Not “Hamilton” musical sort of way. Characters sing about their longing, their hopes, their grief, their fears.
Or they “own” what others say about them in a number. Esposito (“Do the Right Thing,” “Mo’Better Blues,” TV’s “Better Call Saul,” “Once Upon a Time,” etc.) sings “CRAZY…you say it like a BAD word,” and finds a laugh.
But don’t judge Lloyd the Sayer for what he does to feed himself.
“I bring a measure of grace to the world.” That could be the man’s epitaph, or that of the actor playing him.
The tunes can be big production numbers or intimate, five part a cappella moments — scat singing to cover somebody’s embarrassed trip to the toilet, when there is no toilet.
The best moments have no backing track, though the singing here was looped in, which spoils some of the in situ New York subway grit of the piece.
It’s a fantasy, remember, one where race and class and beauty and privilege are fodder for songs.
Our construction worker finishes a Spanglish (Spanish mostly) lament for the life he’s trying to give his family with a rejoinder at the white people on the train “This country wasn’t made for people like me. It was made for people like you.”
The stalker-kid gets a lesson in “You need to stop listening with your ears, boy,” after singing about his disabled comic book heroine, “Magnificent Maggie.”
The lights go out and “every little phobia suddenly appears.”
Madigan hits her solo number out of the park, and the film’s most touching moment — in Spanish — follows it.
Ashanti and Cho give the acting its share of fire.
And Esposito lends the enterprise his grace.
Not great, not a picture that will change the shape of musical theater. But the playful, sweet, pointed and sometimes poignant “Stuck” is certainly worth the 85 minutes it’ll take you to watch it.
MPAA Rating:PG-13 for some mature thematic material including images of a sexual assault, and brief strong language
Cast: Ashanti, Amy Madigan, Arden Cho, Giancarlo Esposito, Omar Chaparro, Gerard Canonico
Credits: Written and directed by Michael Berry, based on the Riley Thomas stage musical. An Eamon Films release.
Running time: 1:23