Extraordinary ORDINARY DAYS at 11th Hour

by Neal Newman

(left to right) Steve Pacek, Michael Philip O'Brien, Whitney Bashor & Alex Keiper in 11th Hour Theatre Company's ORDINARY DAYS. (Photo by John Flak)

The mission of the 11th Hour Theatre is to expand the art of musical theater. They certainly have succeeded with ORDINARY DAYS, receiving its area premiere at the Adrienne Theater. The new musical is by Adam Gwon, who without source material has created a completely original work.  Gwon is a graduate of the NYU musical theater writing program, and has received the Kleban and Ebb awards.

On the surface, this contemporary New York show is about young people trying to meet and survive in a bustling and ruthless “city of strangers”. But on second glance, there’s more. We see young people in a very special place in their lives, when the time comes to question dreams, to take new paths, and let go of the past. When the difficult decisions have been made, Gwon urges his characters, and the audience, to take special notice of the beauty in ordinary things. Even the red of an ordinary apple can be special:

“It’s deep as an ocean, but lighter than air.
It’s simple, familiar and full of feeling.
The color of feeling that life is ok.
The color of an ordinary day.”

The story involves two couples, one platonic. Warren, (Steve Pacek), is a desperate, one step-above-homeless cat-sitter, who travels the subway passing out sayings that he considers works of art to the uncaring populace. He also scavenges junk, and on the subway he finds the masters’ thesis notes of Deb, (Alex Keiper), a neurotic, also desperate graduate student. He and Deb meet and attempt to strike up a friendship that the speed and bustle of the city will try to subvert.

The other couple has just moved in together, but it is evidently too soon in the relationship. Jason, (Michael Phillip O’Brien), is willing to admit that he would leave New York, except for the wonderful girl he has met. Claire, (Whitney Bashor), is enigmatic, at first welcoming, but then afraid to take the relationship further.

There is a marvelous scene early on, where all of the characters visit the Met Museum, and each has a totally different reaction to the art. Warren has a keen esthetic sense, while Deb is annoyed that all of the paintings look the same. As the characters develop the ability to see the wonders of the art, they are more able to put their lives “in perspective” and “see the big picture.”

This story is told entirely in song in a resourceful 80-minute performance. Gwon’s lyrics are simple but inventive and always illuminate the characters. When Jason and Claire fight about which color of wine to bring to a party he says:

“Fine, I’ll bring the red
You bring the white
That way I’ll still get drunk
You’ll still be right.”

When Deb describes her inability to like New York she says:

“Woody Allen heard Gershwin in the air
When he thought “Manhattan.”
Well I’m not so impressed
I hear, like, Phillip Glass at best.”

These fine simple words are set to a rolling, throbbing musical accompaniment that spits the words out at extraordinary speed. Just as one thinks Gwon might be going in circles, the music bursts with incredible lyricism.  Come to think about it, that pretty much describes life in New York.  Each of the characters gets his moment to shine, with Claire’s final “I’ll be there” similar to and in a class with Faure.

The production is truly wonderful.  O’Brien is strong yet vulnerable and makes the most of “Favorite Places.” Pacek’s Warren is goofy and lovable as he examines pieces of trash in “Life Story”. Witney Bashor pulls all the meaning out of both “Let Things Go” and “I’ll Be There.” Alex Keiper manages to make the audience love her, in spite of Deb’s obnoxious qualities, probably because she communicates the character’s anger so sympathetically. The fifth performer is Eric Ebbenga at the piano, who weaves the difficult score effortlessly and with deep feeling. Much of the action is directed to and in the audience. The unmiked singers react with amazing naturalness.

Director Joe Calarco, wonderfully assisted by the understated work of the designers, creates the worlds of the play in a simple space.  The Skybox at the Adrienne is merely a small room with poor ventilation and a low ceiling.  The seating is arranged football style, with a thin playing area in the center.  The room’s windows and brick walls are used cleverly, and the musical staging is outstanding.  One scene in particular stands out, as Warren and Deb let their lives go by throwing his art and her thesis from a rooftop.  The pages are caught by Jason and Claire, proving that, modern life being as difficult as it is, one can have a profound effect even on the lives of strangers.

Book, Music and Lyrics by Adam Gwon
November 25-December 18, 2011
11th Hour Theatre Company
The Skybox at the Adrienne
2030 Sansom Street
Philadelphia PA 19103

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