The lives of four ordinary New Yorkers intersect in Adam Gwon’s tuneful, touching new musical Ordinary Days, now getting a sensationally performed, directed, and designed West Coast Premiere at South Coast Repertory.

Nick Gabriel is nerdy gay guy Warren, currently house-sitting for a jailed “graffiti artist.” Young Warren admires said artist’s fortune cookie-ready slogans so highly that he’s taken it upon himself to print them up on colored half-sheets of paper which he hands out to mostly disinterested passers-by.  An example: “Kindness Is A Virtue That Is Oftentimes Ignored.” (I think I’ve found that in a fortune cookie or two.)

One of the rare pedestrians to actually take one of Warren’s slogan sheets is Deb (Deborah S. Craig), an edgy, intense grad student whose thick stack of thesis notes on Virginia Woolf Warren happens to find.  Naturally Warren emails Deb to reassure her that her notes are safe, and despite a rather strained first meeting, these two were clearly made for each other in Will And Grace bff heaven.

Jason (David Burnham) and Claire (Nancy Anderson) are a long-term couple finally moving in together, but whose connection nonetheless seems considerably less secure than Warren’s and Deb’s.  Claire reacts none too happily to the junk Jason has brought along with him, and one can’t help but wonder if the lady has deeper issues with cohabitation and commitment than merely an aversion to clutter.

Like Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years, the 80-minute Ordinary Days is almost entirely sung-through, which means that whatever “book” it has is found in the songwriter’s lyrics. Though Gwon’s melodies may not be quite as drop-dead gorgeous as Brown’s can be, he is a gifted and versatile composer and a nimble lyricist.  Also, far more than say Rent (or TL5Y for that matter), Ordinary Days tells its story quite coherently without the aid of much spoken dialog.

Following a considerably smaller scale (i.e. 62-seat) off-Broadway premiere last October, Ordinary Days arrives at South Coast Rep in big-stage scope, with a cast any New York theater would be proud to advertise.  (Anderson, Burnham, and Grant all have major Broadway credits, and Gabriel is a star on the rise.)  Director Ethan McSweeny has staged each song as its own mini-production/playlet, aided and abetted by Jason H. Thompson’s exceedingly imaginative projection design.  My guess is that this may well be the best-realized, best-looking Ordinary Days so far.

Deb’s autobiographical “Don’t Want To Be Here” features projected illustrations of the song’s bright and cleverly-rhymed lyrics. “So anyway, back in school, I lasted five semesters and somehow got one of their random degrees.” (Cue college diploma.) I moved down South—I know—to shack up with a boyfriend. Got a job at an Applebees.”  (Cue Applebees logo.) Later when she writes a frantic and much-revised email to her college prof in “Dear Professor Thompson,” Deb’s email pops up word by word in another of Thompson’s ingenious projections. “Saturday At The Met” shows us the very paintings that our foursome are looking at.

If the days described by Gwon’s characters are “ordinary” per the show’s title, then the performances of its four cast members are most definitely out of the ordinary.

Gabriel’s Warren is the kind of adorable nerd that you can’t help but love from the moment he enters in skinny red jeans, an eager smile lighting up his face and eyes. In last year’s I Love You Because, another Young New Yorkers’ Musical, Gabriel’s lead character tended to be overshadowed by the show’s more colorful supporting cast.  Here, he gets Ordinary Days’ brightest rainbow (flag) role and the chance to steal scenes himself—and Gabriel’s musical theater leading man voice is about as gorgeous as they come.

Craig was not only the original Marcy Park in The 25th Annual Putmam County Spelling Bee but also the real-life person on which the character was based. Here she has graduated to adulthood as the kind of sassy, self-confident, self-obsessed, anti-heroine that could be grating if not played by an actress as charming, charismatic, and dryly likeable as Craig. Add to that a voice that can belt with the best of them, her “Calm” a particularly uptight treat. (“I spend all my time trying to get calm…but it’s not working!)

Burnham is a local boy made good on the Great White Way, his early appearances with Cabrillo Music Theatre, Fullerton CLO, and Musical Theatre West leading to his 2005 Broadway debut in The Light In The Piazza and his “best Fabrizio ever” performance in the show’s First National Tour.  His Ordinary Days Jason reconfirms Burnham’s adult leading man chops as an all-around good guy—handsome, well-dressed, and well intentioned. (“If there’s a hundred million people I just want to be with one.” Sigh…) When Burnham’s tenor soars in “Favorite Places,” you realize you’re hearing one of the great voices in contemporary American musical theater, singing to his own excellent piano accompaniment.

Anderson has so many Broadway and other East Coast credits that it’s a special delight to welcome this New York star to SoCal.  As Claire, Anderson gets the tough assignment of playing a woman with a secret so devastating that she does everything possible to keep her man at arm’s length, to his frustration and confusion.  Anderson plays the heck out of Claire, and when she finally gets to sing the cathartic “I’ll Be There”,” it’s Ordinary Days’ most powerful and moving moment.

Musical director Dennis Castellano does his accustomed superb job, and here get to appear onstage tinkling the grand piano ivories to perfection.

As always, South Coast Rep’s design team have come together to create a great-to-look-at production. Fred Kinney’s highly mobile, multi-level set design gives the show a high-as-a-skyscraper feel that it couldn’t have had in its much smaller New York production. Costume designer Angela Balogh Calin knows her Manhattanites, outfitting each character just as you’d see his or her real-life counterpart on the streets of New York 2010.  Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz’s lighting design and Kimberly Egan’s sound design are tiptop as well, and the hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of rainbow colored papers that cascade down from the top of the Argyros proscenium at about the 70-minute point make for one of the most visually gorgeous moments you’re likely to see this year.

Characters in other Broadway musicals may lead extraordinary lives, but extraordinary lives don’t necessarily add up to extraordinary musical theater. Adam Gwon’s Ordinary Days proves that the quotidian can be something special indeed.

South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 

–Steven Stanley
January 10, 2010
                                                                                       Photos: Henry DiRocco/SCR

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