Penfold Theatre Company has brought to Austin Ordinary Days by Adam Gwon. This work of musical theatre is anything but ordinary, and is in fact spectacular in surprising ways. The immediate surprise upon entering the warehouse-like Off-Center in east Austin is the multilevel streetscape of modern New York that serves as the set for the show. The next surprise is that the four singers in the cast are not miked for amplification of their singing, unlike many modern musicals. Yet--who knew--the acoustics of the Off-Center and the set on its concrete floor are such that the music and lyrics were clear from almost every seat in the house. As Director Michael McKelvey said in the talk-back after the show, the decision to amplify or not influences the esthetic of the entire production. Director McKelvey’s choice was exquisite.
And the surprises went on an on.
The story, about young New Yorkers, rose quickly to the level of the human condition and never sank to a condescending game of NYC trivia. Warren (Joe Hartman), a young gay artist, is the support-group-of-one for another artist who fell crossways of the law and has to be in jail awhile. Warren finds on the subway a raw draft of a graduate thesis lost by Deb (Sarah Marie Curry). Warren treats the notes and paste-ups as treasure, thinking of them as Deb’s autobiography when in reality the stuff is the mulch for a study of Virginia Woolf.
The relationship between Jason (Matthew Redden) and Claire (Haley Smith) is romantic and sexual, involving those vexing and eternal questions of whether or not to spend their lives together. This, of course, is an ancient theme, but Jason’s and Claire’s songs about each other are fresh and enjoyable. Dustin Struhall kept it all together musically on the piano alone. Surely a daunting task for one instrument, the success of the show’s music offered yet another of the evening’s surprises.
Adam Gwon is the composer and librettist of Ordinary Days, and he is definitely an emerging playwright to watch. Songwriters describe the pieces of sung music in Ordinary Days and other new musicals as contemporary narratives, comprising a style of songwriting attributed early on to Steven Sondheim. The songs in Ordinary Days sound very close to conversational monologues and dialogues in which characters sing their stories, in contrast to song cycles of formal verse/chorus songs presented on stage. Besides singing talent, this newer form of musical theatre demands more acting on the part of the performers. The cast of Ordinary Days accomplished their more complex task very well. Look for more examples of this form of musical in Austin in the future.
Penfold Theatre is to be commended highly for bringing this leading edge musical to Austin. The company expresses a commitment to mount one musical per year in the region. Fans of musical theatre should follow Penfold Theatre to identify its next offering, which bodes well to equal the ambition of the current production. Ordinary Days runs until April 6th.