Ordinary Days: South Coast Repertory, 1/15/10

20 01 2010

I drove a full two hours to reach South Coast Repertory this past Friday evening. Cast recordings of Floyd Collins and A Little Night Music entertained me in bumper-to-bumper traffic, but it was quite a trek to make for a 90-minute show: I hoped Adam Gwon’s new musical Ordinary Days would be worth the time and effort. Chronicling the intersecting lives of four young adults in modern-day NYC, Ordinary Days is a piano-accompanied chamber musical reminiscent of The Last 5 Years or [title of show]: an exciting theatrical punch in a tight, economical package.  Graduate student Deb misplaces her thesis notes in the subway, setting off a chain of unexpected encounters with the artsy Warren, as well as a couple – Jason and Claire – who have just moved in together.  A city of isolation and the perpetual “ordinary” gradually turns into a city full of potential connections and inspiration.

I was particularly taken by Gwon’s lovely, complex compositional style that draws most directly on Stephen Sondheim (occasional “wrong-note” harmonies and vamping accompaniment) and Jason Robert Brown (long narrative songs that, despite their length, captivate and maintain an audience’s interest).  Program notes by John Glore observe that Ordinary Days opens with four solo numbers performed by the characters in isolation; but as the musical progresses, the characters begin to pick up one another’s leitmotifs and interweave their individual themes.  Structurally, I would love to hear the score several more times and begin to pick apart this careful construction.

Gwon crafts a distinctive lyrical and musical voice for each character, from Deb’s persistent sarcasm and overuse of the word “like” to Warren’s bubbly enthusiasm. However, the lyrics occasionally veer away from the set rhyme scheme and are set awkwardly in spots.  Gwon’s compositions are overall so smooth and tightly-constructed that these few bumps stand out; but for someone writing both the music and lyrics, these bumps could be fairly easily fixed.

Gwon’s narrative also seems drawn from stock sources, including a few Sondheim shows: the isolation of the city from Company is coupled with commentary on the interrelationship of art and life a la Sunday in the Park with George.  With very little spoken dialogue and such long narrative songs, Ordinary Days often feels more like a themed cabaret or song cycle (in the vein of Jason Robert Brown’s The Last 5 Years or Songs for a New World) than a musical.  This is not necessarily a negative quality, just a different type of show with different narrative imperatives.  Perhaps this song cycle quality is to blame for making Claire’s revelation in the latter half of the show – a revelation that has not been sufficiently foregrounded – a strange jolt.  I agree with other critics, Gwon may want to partner with a bookwriter in the future to smooth his storylines. Although Claire’s revelation is a sudden shock, the song that elaborates this revelation is beautiful and affecting; even as I recovered from the strange narrative shift, I found myself wiping away a few tears.

After the outstanding performances I had seen in NYC (Catherine Zeta Jones, Angela Lansbury, Aaron Lazar, Bobby Steggert, Alice Ripley, et al), I was pleased with Deborah S. Craig’s biting sarcasm as Deb and Nick Gabriel’s ebullient optimism as Warren, but everyone’s vocals grew a bit weaker by the end of the night – if not simply by the end of each song.  Lengthy narrative songs are notoriously difficult to sustain, and I picked up on a few vocal falters, not helped any by a slightly muffled sound design.  Musical director Dennis Castellano, on the other hand, sustains a stunning, nearly nonstop piano performance throughout the evening.  After the first song, one almost forgets that the piano is the only accompanying instrument – a testament to Gwon’s impressive arrangements.

At the end of the night, Ordinary Days was absolutely worth the drive.  Adam Gwon captures shining, evanescent moments in the lives of these NYers that genuinely resonate with a contemporary audience.  As Deb and Warren sit in Starbucks, sipping lukewarm tea and sharing their “big pictures” in life, I couldn’t help but be pulled into my own stock memories of similar coffee shop conversations with friends.  At its most utopian, the musical sparks the imagination and opens up space for dreaming.  I left the theater with precisely this sort of excitement about my own “big picture,” eager to return to work on my own writing and compositions!

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2 responses

22 01 2010
Geoff Hoff

I found you via the Bitter Lemon site. I agree with their assessment that you are a very good writer and an wonderful addition to the new crop of theatre reviewers in Los Angeles. Our site was put up as a direct response to print media giving less and less attention to small theatre and I am heartened when I see thoughtful, talented people take up the baton. Keep up the good work! (And if you ever thought of writing for another site, we’d love to have you!)

Geoff

22 01 2010
staylorellis

Thank you for the kind words, Geoff! I am a fan of your site, as well. While I would like to keep up my individual blog, I would be happy to see the reviews reposted on LA Theatre Review, if you have any interest in that sort of arrangement. I’m always looking to independent sources for reviews of smaller shows in the area, and I would be happy to share my work on a larger collective forum!

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