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Public transportation musical fits Boston to a T

(John Blanding/Globe Staff/File)
By Joel Brown
Globe Correspondent / June 24, 2011

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Late trains, missed stops, broken air conditioning. . . . Few Bostonians would mistake the MBTA for the yellow brick road these days. But three harried 20-somethings find an old T map that leads them on a “Wizard of Oz’’-style voyage of self-discovery in “T: An MBTA Musical,’’ a scripted show opening Thursday at ImprovBoston in Cambridge.

Turns out the signal problems may not be in the Green Line, but in ourselves.

“It’s really a story about people, rather than just a story that complains about the T,’’ says composer and lyricist Melissa Carubia.

Carubia, of Newton, wrote the 10 songs. Her friend John Michael Manship, who just moved from Jamaica Plain to Chicago, wrote the book. Both were involved with the Mosaic political sketch comedy troupe at ImprovBoston. More than a year ago, Carubia brought the group what she says was a seven-minute mini-musical about the T.

“The T kept coming up in conversation. . . . ‘Oh, I was on the Red Line, I got stuck underground for two hours,’ or ‘They went to shuttle buses on the Green Line and I didn’t expect it; sorry I’m 45 minutes late,’ ’’ she says. “It just became a part of city life, and it became apparent that it would be a great topic.’’

The Mosaic group quickly decided her idea should be a show, so she and Manship brought it to ImprovBoston leaders and got the OK for a full production.

She credits Manship with building the framework of plot. Young Bostonians Alice, John, and Michelle each have a problem that they blame on the T, and set out to find the T’s Big Boss using a map that Alice finds in her backpack. The mysterious Charlie, he of the eponymous card and Kingston Trio song, secretly guides them on their way. The cast features Patrick Parhiala as John, Sarah Tupper as Michelle, Emily Hecht as Alice, and Ray O’Hare as Big Boss.

Songs range from a number about shuttle buses in the style of “Cell Block Tango’’ from “Chicago’’ to “The Bro Song,’’ which channels Irish drinking songs and the Dropkick Murphys in chronicling the loutish behavior of some testosterone-poisoned locals. The latter number’s place in the show was recently reinforced by Carubia’s worst-ever T experience, she said, when a Green Line trip home from a downtown ballet performance just this spring coincided with the end of a Red Sox game.

“I got sandwiched between these two guys who are just yelling, and they smell like beer, and they thought the T would be a great place to use as their personal gym. They started doing chinups and pullups on the bars people hold onto for support while they’re riding. And one of the gentlemen came down very, very hard on my toe, which I had recently sprained,’’ she says with a rueful laugh.

ImprovBoston’s Central Square location is close to the Red Line, and director Jeffrey Mosser says the cast has already held a couple of flash mob-style performances of “The Bro Song’’ on the subway between Central and Porter squares, with more in the works.

As the characters enter the T, he says, “it’s sort of like Alice going down the rabbit hole. Three real people get dropped into this insane world.’’

After 10 years in Boston, Connecticut native Carubia feels fully qualified to limn the pain of T riders. She says there are enough jokes in the show to satisfy even the most disgruntled passenger, although she acknowledges a soft spot for front-line T employees, some of whom have gone out of their way to help her in the past.

She hopes people take away something more from the show than some T satire.

“I’m hoping what they’ll realize is that the T can be an excuse, rather than the actual reason for the problems they encounter in their lives,’’ she says.

Set in the ’60s “Moonchildren’’ by Michael Weller kicks off the Berkshire Theatre Festival season at the Unicorn Theatre in Stockbridge, with performances Tuesday through July 16. The play is a 1960s coming-of-age drama set in an unnamed college town, tackling issues of sexuality, Vietnam, and civil rights. The cast features Hale Appleman, Kale Browne, and Aaron Costa Ganis. But the name that will mean the most to many theatergoers is that of stage and screen star Karen Allen, who directs this production.

This is Allen’s directing debut at the festival, but she acted there in 1981 in “Two for the Seesaw.’’ She also directed “Moonchildren’’ a couple of years ago at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, where she teaches. Tickets: $39. 413-298-5576, www.berkshiretheatre.org

Nothing but net Boston may be all about the Bruins and Red Sox at the moment, but there’s a play in Watertown that Celtics fans will want to check out. “The Auerbach Dynasty’’ is a one-man show about cigar-chomping Celtics leader Red Auerbach and his triumphs on and off the court. “The Auerbach Dynasty’’ will play the Charles Mosesian Theater in the Arsenal Center for the Arts through July 3. Ken Dooley, a longtime friend of the late coach, wrote and directs the play, which ran for several weeks this spring in Cranston, R.I. Jeff Gill will again play Auerbach. Tickets: $35. 617-923-8487, www.arsenalarts.org

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com.

T: AN MBTA MUSICAL At: ImprovBoston, 40 Prospect St., Cambridge, June 30-July 9. Tickets: $16. 617-576-1253, www.improvboston.com/showcase.