July 14, 2021

The Lives of Four Young New Yorkers Intersect in “Ordinary Days”; Kelsey Theatre Resumes Live Productions with Adam Gwon’s Musical

“ORDINARY DAYS”: Performances are underway for “Ordinary Days.” Directed by Laurie Gougher, the musical runs through July 17 at the Kelsey Theatre. Claire (Jazmynn Perez, left) has suffered a loss that complicates her relationship with her boyfriend, Jason (Shane Tapley, right). Warren (Jackson Jules, second from left) forms an unlikely friendship with Deb (Karaline Rosen, second from right). The cast is accompanied by Michael Gilch (seated at the piano). (Photo by Evan Paine)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

In the musical Ordinary Days a character sings, “All of my most favorite places are places that I’ve never been.” For many theatergoers, a theater housing a live, in-person production is a place that they have never been — at least since March 2020.

Kelsey Theatre has resumed in-person performances. The Kelsey Forward Initiative’s production of Ordinary Days originally was to be presented outside, on the Mercer County Community College (MCCC) campus. However, severe heat and humidity, as well as updates in CDC and state guidelines, led to the production being moved into the auditorium.

The production is “using social distanced seating, and masks are requested during the show,” according to Kelsey’s website. Copies of the program are online rather than in print, and tickets for a livestream are available for viewers who prefer to watch the show online. But the in-person performance attended by this writer (Saturday, July 10) was sold out.

Ordinary Days is a sung-through musical that depicts four New Yorkers whose lives briefly intersect in an unexpected, poetic way. The unassuming, character-driven show is poignant and warmly humorous. It examines the tension between grand ambitions and an ability to treasure daily life; and a character’s need to confront a painful past, in order to welcome a happier future.

Adam Gwon wrote the music and the conversational, intricate lyrics. The show originally opened in 2009, as the first Roundabout Underground production at that company’s Black Box Theatre.

For the Kelsey production, Laurie Gougher succeeds as both the stage director and the musical director. The cast has excellent chemistry, and clearly enjoys the material. Online performances have been an essential stopgap, but Gougher’s direction reminds us what a live stage offers.

Against Lighting Designer Judi Parrish’s starlit sky, we see a crisp, stylized recreation of the Manhattan skyline, by Set Designer Haley Schmalbach and Stage Designer TC Coppolecchia. The set is both an exterior and an interior; the “skyscraper” in the center is a cabinet in which bottles of wine are stored. 

Warren enters, carrying a stack of colorful papers. Some he attaches to the buildings, others he fruitlessly offers to passers-by. The pages contain aphorisms, which an artist has been arrested for painting “all across the city.” Warren reveals that the artist has hired him “to watch his cat while he’s in jail.”

Jackson Jules conveys Warren’s sincere, reflective nature. He puts his entire body into his performance (exuberantly striding around the stage), just as Warren puts his entire being into everything he undertakes, trying to make the most of his life.

Deb, a frazzled graduate student who is rather fidgety, is from a town that is “the suburb of a suburb” and always has found her present location and circumstances limiting to her peripatetic, vague ambitions (“I’ve always known that I had places to go”). Karaline Rosen entertainingly depicts the character’s nervous energy.

Jason (Shane Tapley) is preparing to move in with his girlfriend Claire (Jazmynn Perez), so that there is less “space between” them. This requires them to dispose of some possessions — an uncomfortable task for Claire, who finds it difficult to “let things go.” To Jason’s bewilderment, Claire is especially fierce in her determination to keep a particular sweater.

Deb, who has been busy writing her thesis (about Virginia Woolf), is distressed to find that the notes for her thesis are missing from her bag. In a split scene, Warren discovers the missing notes among items he has found and collected (he is fascinated by the “life story” each item tells). He contacts Deb and offers to meet her at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to return the pages.

Jason and Claire also decide to visit the Met in an attempt to enliven their relationship, which continues to be strained by Claire’s fixation on her past. However, the trip does little to make the relationship closer, as they find that they prefer to explore different rooms.

Deb is overwhelmed by the museum’s traffic and layout, but she finally finds Warren and retrieves her notes. She finds Warren odd — especially because of the elaborate scenario that he has envisioned for their appointment — but suddenly offers to buy him a cup of coffee. (They visit a Starbucks, where they are served by a barista played by accompanist Michael Gilch, who wordlessly hands them their drinks from across the piano).

The exchange points to one of Gwon’s skills as a songwriter: crafting the lyrics — and the music, which dictates the timing of the delivery of the words — in a way that builds toward a sudden but organic surprise at the end. The device is repeated in “Fine,” a curt duet in which Claire and Jason argue over what kind of wine to take to a party. At the end of the number Jason abruptly proposes to Claire, who — to her subsequent horror — accepts.

Tapley, a sturdy tenor, often delivers the strongest vocal performances, particularly in “Favorite Places” and “Hundred Story City.” In these two songs the urbane, passionate Jason expresses frustration at the emotional distance at which Claire continues to keep him. (The latter number contains a line in which he bemoans “the lack of stars,” which is notably contradicted by the lighting.)

Perez is effective in portraying Claire’s pained restlessness. One of her strongest performances comes in “I’ll Be Here,” in which Claire matter-of-factly reveals the devastating reason why the sweater is so important to her — and why she has been unable to commit fully to the relationship with Jason.

Gwon’s music is by turns impassioned, agitated, and at times, introspective. Gilch is a skillful and sensitive accompanist who gives the singers ample support throughout their performances. As a musical director Gougher gets a well-balanced sound out of the quartet; the blending of voices is exquisite in “Hundred Story City” and “Falling.”

Gougher’s staging reminds us of an element that live theater can convey more successfully than a Zoom production: physical space. The philosophical distance between Warren and Deb, and the emotional distance between Claire and Jason, is demonstrated by keeping the characters at a physical distance in certain scenes.

Claire and Jason often are placed at opposite sides of the stage; when they do move toward each other, it is the result of a significant character evolution. Gougher also makes strategic use of vertical levels, letting characters stand on a bench at emotionally charged moments.

Ordinary Days initially was developed in 2007, six years after September 11. The events of that day are a major plot point, and a prevailing theme is the need to cherish what is important, against the ever-present possibility of loss. “Hundred Story City” contains the line “You’ve got to hold tight to what you care for.” In the same song Jason describes putting “life on pause,” which is acutely resonant in 2021. In “Beautiful” Warren appreciates “The color of feeling that life is OK.”

As Gougher observes in a program note, “Beautiful” also contains the lines, “Beautiful takes a person who makes a connection … the beautiful has got to be seen.” It is exhilarating to see this refreshing show in a theater.

Ordinary Days will play at the Kelsey Theatre at Mercer County Community College, 1200 Old Trenton Road in West Windsor, through July 17. For tickets, show times, and further information call (609) 570-3333. The production is double-cast due to COVID precautions. The performances of July 16-17 will feature Stephanie Garcia (Claire), Nathan Olmeda (Jason), François Suhr (Warren), and Zoe Necowitz (Deb).