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Sort-of fairy tale: Adam Armstrong in Ordinary Days.

Anything but Ordinary

By Kathryn Geurin

Ordinary Days

Music and lyrics by Adam Gwon, directed by Mark Fleischer, musical direction and orchestration by Andy Einhorn

Adirondack Theatre Festival, through July 3

Composer and lyricist Adam Gwon was recently named one of “50 to watch” by The Dramatist magazine. For anyone who doubts the significance of the rising young talent, Adirondack Theatre Festival’s current production of his most recent work, Ordinary Days, offers 90 uninterrupted minutes of proof. Gwon is an emerging master of musical theater, and ATF’s collaboration on the new work—still in its evolutionary stages— is a powerful testament to the small equity company’s big place in the theatre world.

The inexorably intertwining plot details of Ordinary Days are of little significance. Gwon’s pint-sized fairytale tells the stirring story of four young New Yorkers learning to connect, to let go, to know themselves, and forge their way. The lyrics of the sung-through musical resonate with wit and poetry, and Gwon’s characters, while strangely familiar, are singular and specific enough to resist succumbing to stereotypes. The score itself is carefully shaped, ebbing between breezy conversation, frenetic intensity, and tender, sometimes heartrending, melodies. Gwon’s harmonies elicit a sound from the four-person cast to rival large-scale musicals.

Thanks in part to a grant secured from the National Fund for New Musicals, ATF commissioned Andy Einhorn to orchestrate Gwon’s original piano score. The partnership proved invaluable for the new work. Einhorn’s rich four-part orchestrations imbue the music with texture and intensity that were undoubtedly lacking from the unorchestrated score.

Einhorn also excels as musical director for this premiere of the orchestrated work. The four-person orchestra, onstage at all times, slips in and out of notice, performing the complex and varied work with affecting ease. Most impressively, the small-scale orchestra—pianist, cellist, bassist, and a shifting alto sax, clarinet and flute line—manage to create, in equal measure, both hauntingly lonely moments and the overwhelming cacophony of a city that never sleeps.

While facilitating the orchestration may be director (and new ATF artistic director) Mark Fleischer’s most enduring contribution to Ordinary Days, his directorial debut at the festival showed Fleisher to be as powerful a force as a director as he is an administrator. With very little stage or scenic direction in Gwon’s book, Fleisher had complete freedom of vision. His resulting directorial choices are so seamlessly interwoven with Gwon’s storytelling, in both metaphor and manner, that Gwon might consider incorporating some of Fleisher’s design in his script.

Fleisher guides his technical team to enrich the story with visual symbolism, and they do so beautifully and subtly. Matt Frey’s lighting design shapes the Spartan set in time, space and mood, discreetly coloring mo ments and lending weight and reality to the surreal set. Stephen Epstein’s costumes es tablish expectations of type from the characters’ first introductions—yet leave room for subtle shifting as each blossoms into someone more and more real. The simple shedding of layers, and a few partial changes unfold the palette from an array of dreary neutrals to a bright spectrum.

Mikiko Suzuki Mac Adams’s set, and Fleisher’s staging on it, is the pinnacle of the team’s technical vision. A silhouetted city skyline sets the backdrop for an open stage; simple elements—a kitchen island, a café table, a lamp post, a taxi’s bench seat—shift on and off stage to set specific locations. But it is the surreal exploration of scale that both solves the technical problem of creating a “hundred story city” on a small stage, and poetically highlights the characters’ attempts to understand their significance in a world that can make one feel so small. MacAdams creates diminutive city blocks, which the actors shift to create new spaces. Buildings are small enough to serve as benches. Miles away from each other, two characters could reach out and clasp hands. Picnickers roll out a towel-sized map of Central Park and recline along its length. Holding a model of the Met under one arm, one lost soul wanders into the museum, as massive gilt frames descend from the flies, establishing the underlying metaphor for what proves to be one of the play’s most powerful scenes.

Fleisher’s casting choices are impeccable. His four-actor team is not only phenomenally talented, they are each impeccably suited to their roles, their vocal timbers shaping distinct characters, and yet blending into exquisitely balanced harmonies. Fleisher guides his actors in performances that resonate with humor, searing honesty, and intense control that has become far too rare in musical theater.

Amy Justman drives her performance of the seemingly cold, distant and down-to-business Claire with just enough pain and tenderness that her final unfolding is a believable, wrenching and beautiful release. Dana Steingold shines as the hypercaffeinated but delightful Deb, whose manic desperation to accomplish something leaves her utterly and anguishingly lost and alone. As her equally floundering, big-dreaming counterpart, Warren, Adam Armstrong reigns in the most treacherous role (Warren is inclined toward the ponderous dreaminess) and creates a complex mix of thoughtful wisdom, angst, and idealistic naïveté. In the romantic but forlorn Jason, Will Reynolds is blessed with many of the play’s most powerful melodies, and imbues them with a truly exceptional, almost anguished honesty. In a refreshing turn, many of his most emotionally powerful moments are his most controlled, lending a profound introspection to his unexpected passion.

In less able hands, Gwon’s score could easily dissolve into saccharine sentimentality. But, ATF performs it as it should be, putting the storytelling before the showstopping at every turn, and making Ordinary Days anything but ordinary.

Tough Love

Carousel

Music by Richard Rodgers, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, directed by Julianne Boyd

Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, Mass., through July 11

Carousel is perhaps the most touching musical romance about lovers who hurt each other and never say the words “I love you.” Such is the remarkable restraint of Oscar Hammerstein’s words, which, when married to Richard Rodger’s eloquent music, moisten the driest of ducts.

Adapted from Ferenc Molnar’s play Liliom, it tells the story of Julie Jordan, a proper young millworker, and Billy Bigelow, a lusty carousel barker—lovers whose affair is as rough and tormented as the musical’s coastal Maine setting. It’s a dark fantasy in which tenderness collides with abusiveness, violence underscores humor, faith trumps suicide, and redemption is as elusive a possibility as the ring on a carousel.

As she has done in her past mainstage musicals, Julianne Boyd has assembled a cast who sound and look terrific. Whether in rousing choral numbers like “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” and “Blow High, Blow Low” or in lone moments where characters confront their fears and vulnerabilities with the strong yet fragile likes of “If I Loved You” and “Soliloquy,” they ably respond to Darren Cohen’s musical direction. So too, does the cast rise, or leap, to the challenges of Joshua Bergasse’s vibrant choreography, which capably interweaves eclectic styles ranging from sailors’ hornpipe to ballet.

As usual, production standards are high and, with the exception of Robert Mark Morgan’s unfortunate scenic design for the Starkeeper’s workshop, everything on stage is nicely rendered, from the dynamic skyscape to the colorfully weathered shingles. I only wish there were more there to give a sense of the natural surroundings (an island clambake is devoid of any woodsy or even seaworthy atmosphere) and essential artifacts (such as the broken-down carousel that Billy’s daughter should encounter years after he has died). The carousel itself is imaginatively rendered with Sam Craig’s beautifully carved half-horses, which are manipulated by the sturdy male ensemble on whose shoulders ride the comely females.

Holly Cain’s costumes are appropriate and eye-catching, and never more so than when the women’s skirts rise to reveal a colorful garden of blooming bloomers.

Sara Jean Ford’s ever-grinning Carrie Pipperidge makes one wish for a bit more pepper. Her impulses are fine, and she is animated, but she comes close to competing with Celeste Holm in the please-look-at-me school of acting. More effective is Carrie’s comic counterpart, Enoch Snow. As played by Todd Buonopane, Snow arrives as a cherubic Humpty Dumpty, and turns into a capitalist Porky Pig who winds up a fatuous prancing prig.

One could not hope for a lovelier looking and sounding Julie Jordan than that of Patricia Noonan. Her yearning for Billy is almost painful as she wears her emotions nakedly on her delicate cotton sleeve, but there is something missing of Julie’s inner despair. She smiles bravely through too much, and when she sings “What’s the Use of Wond’rin?” it lacks the introspection to make this song catch in the listener’s throat. This isn’t a Julie who needs to be reminded to hold her head up high.

While I don’t buy that his Billy Bigelow is ready to destroy himself, Aaron Ramey nails everything else. In particular, he is powerful in the tentativeness of “If I Loved You” and the resoluteness of “Soliloquy.” But it is his playing of Billy’s yearning to connect again with Julie and his daughter, now grown into a young woman, that purges our emotions in the show’s touching climax.

The most moving moments in the show, however, come unexpectedly. In a performance that suggests both the delicacy of her mother and the toughness of her father, Kristen Paulicelli is a revelation as Billy and Julie’s daughter Louise. Paulicelli dances as much with her eyes as her limbs, and her ballet is an extended and exquisite piece of heartache. Try not to be moved as Paulicelli’s emotions ignite her face and flash through her body without apparent effort or technique.

In Louise’s ballet, BSC’s Carousel finds a transcendent poem that nestles discretely into the frequent delights of Boyd’s theatrical staging and the cast’s accomplished singing of some of the best stuff ever written for the musical theater.

—Ralph Hammann

 


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