How to pinpoint the most exquisite moment in the excellent and moving “Ordinary Days” from the Organic Theater Factory at The Voice Shop? There’s so much in this spare, nimble and intimate musical about four New Yorkers grappling with life in the city to contend for that honor.
It could be the part when Dominic Grijalva, playing a relentlessly sunny artist named Warren, lets his optimism brim over the day he meets a new friend at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. (Grijalva sports an expression on his face somewhere between cloyingly naive and wisely philosophical.) Or it could be when Terry Lewis, playing a lovestruck suitor named Jason who can’t quite bring himself to declare his love for his live-in girlfriend, sings of his “Favorite Places” in the city. (Lewis’ tender high tenor lines ache with frustration.)
Another candidate for triumphant moment: when the wonderful Taylor Abels, portraying an acerbic and self-involved graduate student named Deb, has a mini-breakdown and longs for an antidote to Manhattan’s chaos in the song “Calm.” (Abels hits musical-theater heights in the solo, immersing us in her character’s woes and wishes as she conveys the narrative as a master storyteller, all while belting it out in gorgeous voice.)
And then there’s Ashley Taylor, as the skittish and ambivalent Claire, unsure of her love for Jason, who has a breakdown of her own in the powerhouse song “Gotta Get Out,” delivered in a fit of angst in the back of a taxi. (“I don’t know where to,” she says when the driver asks her destination. “You’re the professional. You should be making these kinds of decisions!”) As Laurie King, the production’s nuanced and skilled accompanist, pounds out the chords in the chorus of the song, it’s as if you can feel the rush and squeal of the taxi on rain-slicked streets.
But I’ll have to go with the most obvious moment: Taylor singing the beautiful penultimate song “I’ll Be Here,” the musical’s emotional high point. I won’t tell you how this gorgeous tune connects the paths of the four characters together. That’s the whole point of seeing the show. But Taylor does the song every bit of justice it deserves, which I consider the highest praise. Tears were streaming, and not just on stage.
Director Anthony Taylor has an obvious affinity for Adam Gwon, the up-and-coming composer who wrote the music and lyrics in the nearly sung-through 2009 Off-Broadway show. This Central Valley premiere might be spare in terms of production values, but the four talented performers — all well-known to Valley audiences — are first-string all the way. (The show continues through Dec. 8.)
“Ordinary Days” is as much about tone and emotion as it is narrative, and the beginning of the show might be a challenge for audience members who aren’t used to small chamber musicals. The first songs are basically monologues, with the characters imparting large amounts of storyline. So the opening does seem a little slow and static. (As the lyric goes in “Urinetown,” just finished by Lewis and Abels, “nothing can kill a musical like too much exposition.”)
I wish the director could have figured out a way to make those opening-song monologues a little less passive. Too often it seems they’re delivered with feet planted firmly in one place, belted out to the audience.
Soon we learn that Deb has experienced a calamity: She’s lost the only copy of her thesis on Virginia Woolf, which she has kept in a single notebook. That’s how she meets up with Warren, who finds it — and insists on meeting her at the Met to return it. Meanwhile, in the parallel storyline, we follow Jason and Claire as they bicker on the way to a dinner party, a fight that exposes the not-so-solid foundation of their relationship.
Once we meet the characters, there’s less direct singing to the audience. As the characters interact with each other, director Anthony Taylor finds creative ways to stage them. (In “Favorite Places,” for example, Claire wanders on stage while Jason sings, and as he turns to her in profile, the scene shifts into a memorable tableau.)
Again, how all four of these characters wind up being connected is a big part of the show’s impact and charm. Along the way, Gwon’s lyrics and memorable tunes are a delight, with wry humor and plaintive musings intersecting in a wonderfully melodic way. (My favorite lyric, bar none, in the show is when Deb sings that her obnoxious professor “just tosses back his head — and a dry Manhattan.”)
Adding to the charm of the performance is the intimate setting, with the front row of seats mere feet away from the actors. The small space means these powerful singers can go unamplified, and all four are more than up to the task. On the few times that all four times join together in song, it’s as if you’ve just flown into a puffy cloud of pure, vibrant sound.
Life is pretty special. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that. Every single day you’re alive is a gift. What “Ordinary Days” does is wrap that gift in song.
And there’s absolutely nothing ordinary about that.