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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Ordinary Days’

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.

Responses to "THEATER REVIEW: ‘Ordinary Days’"

Cynical Theater Goer says:

OK, do we really need yet another show about New Yorkers grappling with life? Got to admit, though, I want to see this production.

Anthony Taylor says:

To be fair…only one of the characters appears to be a born New Yorker. Two of them don’t even want to be there. AND none of the characters is an actor…so that’s something, right?

Hope to see you there!!!

Donald Munro says:

I do hear you on this one, Mr. Cynical — we’re definitely a New York-centric society when it comes to culture. I’m sure people who live in France and England feel the same way about depictions of Paris and London. And I agree that the theme of frazzled New Yorkers trying to find balance in a crazy city is a little overdone. (If you read the New York Times review of this show, the critic rolled his eyes at yet another song about an uptight compulsive Starbucks customer getting fussy about a drink order.) But … I think you can look past all this with this show. The music and lyrics are that good, and the bigger relationship themes are universal.

Anthony Taylor says:

The Organic Theater Factory is incredibly pleased that you received the message that are trying to convey. It’s always a little humbling and rewarding when someone so eloquently and elegantly expresses what we’ve all been striving to create.

I just wanted to mention a few people who helped take the show to a completely different level. In addition to being our stage manager, Kristin Goehring designed and painted a set that gave us a lovely and slightly abstract background to play our show against. My initial concept was to put it on black, but Kristin would have NONE of that. I think her work really elevated our show. Also, Madi Spate with the assistance of Dillon Morgan, created a lighting design that I could only dream about for that space. When we did Glory Days I had four white lights and I was happy. Our show has now doubled that and with Madi’s expert design, the show looks and FEELS completely different.

Hope to see you all for the last four performances of ORDINARY DAYS!!!
Thurs: 9pm (after ArtHop)
Fri: 8pm
Sat: 2pm AND 8pm
All at The Voice Shop on Wishon

Go to http://www.otffresno.com for details AND tickets!!!

jamie says:

I wish I saw what you saw Donald. I really do. The material is unmelodic and feels more like a therapy session than a musical. There was so little staging, so little setting, that all you have is the music and the performances. And neither of those elements was strong enough to move or transport me. Taylor Abels is a strong singer who made the most of one note part. By the time the character shows ANY change, I stopped caring. Terry Lewis has an excellent voice, but he sang over the audience’s head and didn’t connect with us. When a theatre is that small, you can really connect, and he didn’t. Dominic Grijalva did all he could with the donut part — the voice of the writer whose feeling and backstory are omitted — but he had no opportunities to truly shine as we’ve seen him shine before. Ashley Taylor has the ability to hit all the notes, but her lack of expressions and lack of vocal emotion made the character come across as unpleasant and unsympathetic. I applaud the company for bringing the show to Fresno; I wish it had been better.

Stephen says:

Jamie, I want to respond to you with clever insight based on my years of theatrical experience and refute your points, but I cannot.

On reflection hours after the 8pm show, I think I agree with both you AND Donald. I certainly noticed the beauty of the show, the clever lyrics and the keen talents. The rainfall of colors on the heads used as artistic baptism for change really was special and worked well.

I also agree wholeheartedly with Anthony about the lighting – just 8 instruments used spectacularly to paint the stage with subtle movement and complementary color combinations.

And I agree that Ashley Taylor was probably at her peak from any other time I’ve seen her. I also agree that the space provided was used quite well and cleverly, and the sound held up for sure.

But then, Jamie, I agree with you. While Ashley and Taylor Abels were at the top of thier games, while Terry’s voice was lovely, I, too found Ashley’s character to be unsympathetic. And yet her “I’ll be here” revelatory song was emotional and touching. I agree that Dominic’s face was somewhat appealing as “cloyingly naive,” but his character was such a one-note that I really didn’t find any appeal to him. Terry’s character I could relate to, but he did sing over our heads and therefore didn’t connect with me/the audience. I found no chemistry between he and Ashley, yet they clearly were believing in their emotions.

Part of this is the writing – a clever plot device denouement doesn’t a complete show make. Taylor Abels is reliably fantastic (and she was slightly typecast here), but the writing leaves her character one-noted for so long that we have to cling to her expressiveness and comedy skills rather than finding emotional ties to her character woes. You’re right – I really don’t care and I’m not moved at all by her character’s transformation at the end…nor do I believe in the sudden BFF pull of Warren and Deb together.

So the show is beautiful, the lighting, singing and acting wonderous, and yet there’s so much lacking….that Jamie’s point is right all along – the show was just Chinese food, and here I am over an hour later un-filled and left wanting for more.

Well done, Jamie…very well said.

jamie says:

Stephen

The more I think about it, the less I liked it. But I am still thinking about it two days later so that must mean something. I love your analogy that it’s a bit like Chinese good, and you nailed the lack of chemistry between Jason and Claire. I can’t say the lighting was anything beyond functional — they teach you in lighting class, when you don’t have enough instruments, use saturated colors. The paper storm and sudden introduction of Claire’s past lover are lame deus ex machina devices. Finally, the theater desperately needs to either elevate the stage or rake the audience. When I’m in a theatre with 50 people and can’t see, that doesn’t make me want to come back.

Anthony Taylor says:

Certainly sorry you had a less than stellar time at the theater this weekend, friends. While I don’t agree with your opinion of the material, actors or design, I can agree that if we continue to use that space we are going to have to find some better seating options.

Thanks for your patronage and I hope your next theater going experience is more enjoyable.

Anthony Taylor
Artistic Director
Organic Theater Factory

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