fairy tale: Adam Armstrong in Ordinary Days.
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.
by Richard Rodgers, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II,
directed by Julianne Boyd
Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, Mass., through July
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
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.