You can’t get theater much more exposed than the new production of “Glory Days” at The Voice Shop: A bare stage sporting little more than a bare wall, a bench and some Astroturf. Four actors dressed in contemporary street clothes. A tiny venue in which the front row is so close to the performers that you can see every pore. A book and score in which nostalgia and introspection is key but very little action takes place.
Yet something impressive happens in this intimate production from the Organic Theater Factory. You forget about the smallness and simplicity of the space as you’re slowly absorbed into the lives of four beautifully delineated characters. Thanks to stellar casting and top-notch vocal direction, this tale of four high school friends who reunite after their first year of college encompasses the audience just as surely as if director Anthony Taylor had been able to replicate an entire high school football stadium on stage.
The storyline is familiar to anyone who ran with a certain crowd at a certain time in their lives and then regrouped for a reunion. The chemistry between then and now can be tricky. Will (Taylor Babcock) asks his friends to meet up at stadium to share an evening together. The place has a special significance. In high school, none of the four could make the football team. Instead, they became — as the slightly outcast and “different” in high school often do — a fiercely bonded foursome.
Along with the somewhat fussy Will, who calls himself the documentarian of the group, we meet Jack (Benjamin McNamara), who at first seems quiet and standoffish in this reunion of old friends; Skip (Daniel Rodriguez), who is breezy and full of himself but with a solid core of maturity; and Andy (Tyson Pyles), a loud and blustery soul whose raw edges can’t entirely cover the needier soul within. In a series of songs (the music and lyrics are by Nick Blaemire and the book by James Gardiner), these old friends reminisce, reveal secrets, bicker, support each other and navigate the bumpy currents often associated with a reunited tight-knit group.
“Glory Days” was not kindly received when it opened on Broadway in 2008. It probably belonged in a much smaller and more intimate venue. (And you can’t get much smaller and more intimate than The Voice Shop, which is a wonderful addition to the Fresno theater scene.) Beyond that, I can see why New York critics, presumably middle-aged and beyond, might have balked at the content and tone of the show. It’s bracingly young. Its characters ache with the realization that people change and that no relationship is guaranteed. There’s a tenderness — a big, naive rawness — to the themes in this show that leave them wide open to pot-shots from cynics.
But I like the fact that within that naivete is tremendous nuance and an astute take on group dynamics. Babcock, who gives the finest performance I’ve seen from him Fresno, shares with us his character’s valiant effort to keep his high school quartet together. But his efforts also reek faintly of desperation. “Maybe I’m the only one who stayed the same,” his character sings. In one of the most emotionally charged songs in the show, “The Thing About Andy,” Babcock and McNamara (who is in beautiful voice) sing of the realization that in a group relationship, not everyone is equal — one of those basic lessons in life that perhaps is only learned through the growing pains of the young.
I was especially drawn to Rodriguez’s turn as the Grateful-Dead-T-shirt-wearing Skip, who out of all the characters seems to possess a wisdom advanced for his years. Rodriguez inhabits the role with a physical finesse that seems effortless yet complex. Out of the four performances, Pyles (also in fine voice) is perhaps the least convincing, but perhaps the hardest to portray. To me, his Andy is the one who’s hurting the most inside, and I never quite connected with the intensity of those emotions.
From a pure music standpoint, however, “Glory Days” soars. The quartet’s voices blend with a rich, lush ensemble feel that captures the feeling of togetherness just as much as the lyrics. Vocal director Terry Lewis, who plays keyboards, is joined by Kyle Lowe on guitar and Alexis Holladay. (My only quibble at the preview performance I attended was a keyboard that overpowered some of the vocals on louder numbers.) What a treat to pair live music with a young, fresh Broadway score.
It all adds up to a tender show that — no matter your age — might have you leaving the theater musing about the whereabouts of your own high school friends. (And don’t tell me that Facebook is a lifesaver. Like it or not, people do grow apart.) With a venue as tiny as this and a limited number of performances, my advice is to get tickets early.