Kym Pappas and Brent Roberts in "Ordinary Days." Photo by Adriana Zuniga-Williams
What’s most extraordinary about InnerMission Productions’ staging of Adam Gwon’s chamber musical “Ordinary Days” is how director Matthew E. Graber and a cast of four create the illusion of Manhattan, in all its bustling humanity, in confines the size of a freight elevator. But rather than being an impediment, Diversionary Theatre’s little Black Box space proves an effective conduit between cast and the closely seated audience, facilitating an emotional connection with “Ordinary Days’” searching characters and its I-Love-New York backdrop.
Two tales of doubt and personal identity unfold at the same time, though never together, in this 18-song, 90-minute affair which is getting its San Diego premiere. Deb (Jamie Channell Guzman) is a harried graduate student who, to her horror, has lost on the subway the notes to her dissertation. That she can spew a complicated drink order to a Starbucks barista without taking a breath speaks to her manic disposition. By contrast, the good-natured guy Warren (Patrick Mayuyu) who finds and returns her notebook seems, at first blush, positively zen, encouraging Deb to see the “big picture.” But Warren, who cat-sits and hands out aphorism-graced fliers for an unseen artist, knows in his heart that life holds more in store for him.
The heart and its uneasy slow-dance with love defines Claire (Kym Pappas) and Jason (Brent Roberts), who have moved in together and found their relationship wanting. Incurably romantic Jason wants what evasive Claire can’t seem to give him. He does not know of a terrible loss in her past, one that Gwon’s 5-year-old musical reveals in a moving two-song climax (“Falling,” “I’ll Be Here”) that will make your throat tight. Here, “Ordinary Days’” other “character” – New York City – is evoked in the memory of the darkest, least ordinary day in its history.
Mayuyu is likable and sympathetic as Warren, who in spite of his restlessness, seems most at home in the big city. Guzman impresses with her knack for the machine-gun pace of Gwon’s lyrics for Deb. Pappas and Roberts bring home with tenderness the dissonance of their romance, particularly in Roberts’ yearning ballad “Favorite Places.”
“Ordinary Days” is the first-ever musical for co-artistic directors Pappas’ and Carla Nell’s 12-year-old InnerMission Productions. On a technical level, it works for the most part. Musical director Hazel Friedman accompanies the cast on piano, and in the closeness of the Black Box space, acoustics is a non-issue. At times, such as when one of the characters is singing alone, the static image of a studio audition may come to mind. But playwright Gwon’s revealing and often clever lyrics enliven solos like Guzman’s “Dear Professor Thompson” and “Calm,” or Mayuyu’s “Life Story.” And during numbers in which all four actors are onstage and in full ensemble voice, you’d swear there was more than a piano supporting them.
Ultimately, “Ordinary Days’” emotive potency, which inhabits then transcends the fates of its four New Yorkers, requires no more than a keyboard’s minor chords and the intermittent crescendos that accompany life’s unforgettable moments. (Review originally published in San Diego Union-Tribune on 7/30/17.)
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.