Seeing the Extraordinary in the Ordinary

Ordinary Days (Victory Theatre)userpic=theatre_ticketsMy Amazon Wish List is big; my music collection is bigger (I lovesssss me my iPod Classic, my precioussssss). Both contain music to shows I have never seen. I mention this because I love to finally see shows I’ve only heard, or shows I know only through a cast album that is highly rated but I’ve neither seen nor heard. So when my LA Theatre RADAR uncovered the fact that “Ordinary Days“, a newish musical whose cast album was on my “Cast Albums after 1990” wish list, was opening at the Victory Theatre Center in Burbank, I jumped at the chance to go see it. I wasn’t disappointed. It was an enjoyable musical, well performed, with a few unexpected surprises. (ETA: I’ll probably get the album on my next Amazon order).

Ordinary Days” is a new musical by Adam Gwon. It is described on the licensing site as telling “the story of four young New Yorkers whose lives intersect as they search for fulfillment, happiness, love and cabs. Through a score of vibrant and memorable songs, their experiences ring startlingly true to life.” That’s a very glossy and slightly misleading description, particularly with respect to the word “intersect”.

Ordinary Days” tells the story of two pairs of people in New York in what I would surmise to be 2003-ish. The first pair is Warren and Deb. Warren works for an artist who is in jail, handing out slips of paper with sayings this artist once wrote on building, and collecting found things. Deb a a slightly neurotic English literature grad student getting ready for her first thesis meeting with her advisor. One day, she loses her notebook with all her research notes it it, and Warren finds it. He sends her an email, and their friendship begins (it isn’t a “relationship”, for one brief exchange notes that he’s gay). Once they meet, we see them going back and forth trying to find each other’s big picture. Warren’s picture is perhaps the seed thought for the show: being able to see the extraordinary in the ordinary days in New York. Eventually, he teaches Deb about this; Deb teaches him there is more to life.

The second pair is Jason and Claire. As we first meet them, Jason is moving into Claire’s apartment and they are fighting over what stuff to keep and what to pitch. We see that each has their historical baggage they want to keep; Claire’s includes an old sweater that she won’t explain (we presume it belonged to a former boyfriend). As their interactions go on and on, we see the relationship between the two get testier, with Jason unable to tell Claire that he loves her, and Claire unable to accept Jason’s affection. It reaches a boiling point when Jason blurts out a proposal. What happens then is what makes the musical, but I really don’t want to spoil it.

Remember that I said the original description said that the lives of these people “intersect”. That’s misleading. Gwon’s story (which is told entirely through songs — there is no recitative dialog in any scene) keeps alternating between the two pairs of people. There are a few scenes where all four are on stage at the same time, but one pair never directly interacts with the other in a plot-meaningful way. Even near the end of the piece, where the actions of one pair influence the actions of the other, there is never a direct interaction. In fact, except for that one scene, this could be divided into two one-acts, each act focusing on one pair, and the story wouldn’t be hurt. Perhaps that’s a strength; perhaps it is a weakness. However, I do believe that if they were forced to interact, it would seem forced and artificial; perhaps the message is that in the large number of “dots” that is New York City, even the actions of one or two dots can have significant effects on others.

As I noted, the story is told entirely through songs (as Stan Freberg might say, “The music is the book, the book is the music”). Initially this was jarring, but by the end it seemed to work. It reminded me most of another song heavy musical, “The Story of My Life” (which we saw back in 2010). This opened up an interesting post-show debate about when is something a musical vs. a light opera vs. an opera. I opined that musicals focus primarily on the story and less on the emotion of the music. That was certainly the case here — I didn’t walk out humming any particular melody, although the music worked well to carry the story along. The word play was clever (I did appreciate rhyming “dork” with “New York”), and I look forward to getting the cast album. But it wasn’t the sort of music that carried your along with its scope and grandeur as operas do, and I’m not sure it fit the light (i.e., comic) opera or operetta role of a Gilbert & Sullivan piece.

The direction by Angel Creeks (FB) (interview) did a great job of bringing out the character in these characters; that is, helping the actors to inhabit and become the roles. She made the interactions work well on the limited set. However, I didn’t realize this to the end. In particular, the behavior of the second pair seemed somehow off to me throughout most of the show; it wasn’t until the end that I realized there was a reason for that behavior. As always, I’m not sure where in this portrayal how to separate the work of the director from the skills brought by the actors. So let’s turn to the actors.

The first pair we meet are Warren (Reggie De Leon (FB)) and Deb (Katie Kitani (FB)). De Leon wins you over with his first song, “One by One by One” — he is just so joyful as his character it is infectuous. This is a young man who just finds joy in the little things. His performance does something that I enjoy so much — he inhabits his character and it seems to just be natural and exuberant. We see a similar performance from Kitani as Deb — her Deb is neurotic and controlled and nervous and enthusiastic and confused and… just a delight to watch. Again, she nails this with her first song, “Don’t Wanna Be Here”, which establishes not only her character but her quirky personality. With Kitani, I particularly enjoyed watching the nuances of her face and motions as she sang the songs. Again, she just inhabited the character, making it hers and seemingly merging actor and role. Both De Leon and Kitani sang wonderfully and just lit up the stage whenever they were on it. I’ll note that Amir Levi (FB) plays Warren on Friday nights. Based on the picture in the program, I would imagine that Levi would bring a different vibe to the character that would be interesting to contrast with De Leon’s portrayal.

The second pair we meet are Jason (William Martinez (FB)) and Claire (Anne Schroeder/FB). These two are much more cold and brittle, and something in their portrayal bothered me slightly. It turned out to have an explanation (which, being a pivotal plot point, I don’t want to spoil). Still, you don’t find out the reason for those aspects until near the end, so it would have been nice to see some occasional playful nuances. Overall, however, their performance was very good, although I wish that Martinez’s Jason had a bit more joy and excitement — he had found the love of his life, but he was more confused than shouting it to the world. Both sang well, although each had a slightly off point in their opening number. Presumably, that will work itself out in future performances.

The music in the production was under the direction of Alby Potts (FB) and P. Matthew Park. Potts was also onstage playing the sole keyboard (and interacting with the characters as a barista, in one scene). The production worked well with a single piano; it would be interesting to see how this production might change with larger orchestration. It might overpower the piece.

Turning to the technical. The scenic design by Frank Pepito (FB) was very simple: some outlines of buildings, some boxes, some empty frames, and some props. It worked to evoke New York City, but didn’t give a strong sense of place that might have worked better for those less familiar with the city (such as many in Los Angeles). The trick is conveying the unique vibe that is New York City to someone who has never been there, especially when the NYC vibe is often the antithesis of the LA vibe. The sound design by Dayne Donnell/FB was clear and crisp. One could imagine some background sounds to establish place, but these would have worked against the songs. The lighting design by Wynn Zucchero (FB) worked well most of the time; there were some lighting transitions that briefly left the actors a little in the dark. Costumes were coordinated by Cheddar Verna/FB and worked well.  I particularly appreciated the attention to detail demonstrated in Claire’s jewelry, which initially confused me but became clear by the end. Well done! Graphic design by Amy Turner/FB. Linda Griffin (FB) was the assistant director and stage manager, assisted by Max Griffin. “Ordinary Days” was produced by the Victory Theatre Center (FB) and Not So Artful Productions (FB).

Ordinary Days” (FB) continues at the Victory Theatre Center until September 29. For those that enjoy off-Broadway style smaller musicals, it is well worth seeing — especially for the performances of Reggie De Leon and Katie Kitani. Tickets are available through the VTC Box Office, and may be available through Goldstar.

ETA: [Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.]

Dining Notes. We had dinner before the show at La Maria Restaurant, which is about ½ mile W of the theatre on Victory, right near the Burbank/LA city line. Excellent Columbia and Americas food, with a wonderful salsa. I had their Pollo en Salsa Criolla, and it was just great. I’m going to recommend this place to the So Cal Games Day crowd, as Games Days are held at the church about a block away from VTC.

Upcoming Theatre and Concerts:  I told you our schedule would fill up quickly. Next weekend sees us in Santa Clarita for the Exit 81 production of “The Vagina Monologues” on September 15th at REP East (FB). The fourth weekend in September brings two shows: “bare – A Rock Musical” (FB) at the Hayworth in the Westlake Disttrict on Saturday, and “Carrie That Tune” (great songs from flop musicals) at the Avery Schreiber Playhouse (FB) in North Hollywood on Sunday.  We close September by returning to Santa Clarita and REP East (FB) for “God of Carnage” (September 28). Theatre in October starts on the 5th with “Breath and Imagination” at the Colony Theatre (FB).  The second week of October sees me at the West Coast Premier of “Burnt Street Boys at the Third Street Theatre (FB).  The third week of October is being held for the production of “Carrie – The Musical (FB) by Transfer Theatre, but tickets are not yet on sale. October ends with the Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) production of “Kiss Me Kate” (October 26). November will start (hopefully) with “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” at Actors Rep of Simi (FB). That will be followed by a visit with Thomas the Tank Engine when we volunteer at OERM over Veterans Day.  The third week will be theatre-ish, as we attend ARTS’s Nottingham Village (FB) (a one-weekend ren-faire-ish market — tickets are now on sale). November will conclude with “Play It Again Sam” at REP East (FB) at the end of the month (November 23), and “Miracle on S. Division Street” at the Colony Theatre (FB).  December is mostly open, but should bring “The Little Mermaid” at Nobel Middle School, and “Peter and the Starcatcher” at The Ahmanson Theatre. As always, I’m keeping my eyes open as the various theatres start making their 2013/2014 season announcements. Lastly, what few dates we do have open may be filled by productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411, or discussed in the various LA Stage Blogs I read (I particularly recommend Musicals in LA and LA Stage Times).