Adam Gwon’s 2009 show Ordinary Days could serve as the prototypical Off-Broadway chamber musical: four young characters navigate the Big City in search of their lives, in 19 songs over 80 minutes.
The four characters consist of two discrete pairs that meet only fleetingly. Jason (Bobby Libby) is moving in with his girlfriend of a year, Claire (Sarah Anne Sillers). Their relationship is fraught: Jason seeks a commitment, while Claire is reluctant, harboring a secret sorrow. It seems to be one of those relationships that has not found an equilibrium. They could break up, they could get married, but they are unlikely to stay where they are.
Meanwhile, Deb (Anna Phillips-Brown) a hyper, anxious literature grad student, connects with Warren (Carl Williams), an aspiring artist currently cat-sitting for a jailed acquaintance. Warren distributes multicolored strips of paper with cheerful slogans written on them that ultimately, if somewhat improbably, have a transformative effect on everyone concerned. One of the show’s virtues is that it explores the connection between the two in terms of a deepening friendship, rather than a romance.
While all the NextStop Theatre actors portray their characters effectively, Gwon’s writing makes Deb and Warren more interesting, in an adorably quirky Off-Broadway kind of way, than Claire and Jason who deal with fairly standard romantic couple issues.
This is a sung-through musical, with very few spoken lines. Most of its 19 songs are similar to each other: up-tempo, overflowing with words, almost patter-song like. At times, Ordinary Days feels less a play than a staged concept album. The cast delivers the music with skill and verve. All the voices are strong, with Phillips-Brown’s belt being particularly vivid.
There are exceptions to this pattern, and Gwon’s songs that slow the pace a bit are the show’s best. Claire’s final number, “I’ll Be Here,” explanatory and moving, is a high-quality theater song, and Sillers brings home its emotion. Warren and Deb’s “Beauty,” a reaction to a still life of an apple at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, also merits praise. It suggests, like some other moments in the show, that at some point Gwon paid attention to Sunday in the Park with George. For that matter, if one is on the prowl for Sondheim echoes, one might also note Deb’s “Calm,” reminiscent in tone as well as title to Hysterium’s “I’m Calm” from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Jason’s heartfelt “Favorite Places” also landed well.
The driving force of the show’s musical success is keyboardist Elisa Rosman, long one of the premier musical directors in Northern Virginia theater. Playing flawlessly and energetically throughout the entire length of the show, with scarcely time for a deep breath, Rosman communicates beautifully with the cast, together creating a seamless musical fabric.
Ordinary Days is very much a creature of its New York setting, which scenic designer JD Madsen creates largely through the medium of three upstage screens showing scenes of the city and artwork at the Metropolitan Museum. The physical set consists largely of a multipurpose rectangle of gray platforms, with a sort of metal grate in the center. It serves as everything from the characters’ apartments to the museum to a rooftop from which Warren showers passers-by with his paper strips.
Kristen P. Ahern’s costumes are well-tuned to the characters, Warren’s street artist mélange and Claire’s more formal, buttoned-up look in the latter portion of the show being particularly notable. J.D. Brock directed with a light touch, keeping the pace brisk and letting the characters and songs carry the day.
In the final scene, Warren states explicitly the show’s theme that “ordinary days” can, in effect, create moments of extraordinary beauty, if you are willing to look. NextStop’s production conveys the theme in an enjoyable package.
Running Time: 80 minutes, with no intermission.