There are moments when singing actress Janine DiVita may remind you of Idina Menzel — from her pretty, pristine soprano voice to even the way she presents herself as Claire, DiVita’s character in the new Round House Theatre production of Ordinary Days.
There are even similarities that could be teased out between Adam Gwon‘s musical and Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt’s If/Then, the Tony-nominated new musical Menzel first offered D.C. theatergoers in a pre-Broadway trial last November. But on most counts, Gwon’s Ordinary Days, which was a hit Off Broadway five years ago and is only now making its D.C. area debut, would stack up better.
A native of Baltimore, Gwon doesn’t confuse us with a convoluted plot, and he doesn’t get nearly as carried away with overwrought music, the way Yorkey and Kitt did. Though you might wish for sharper melodies or more hooks to hum, Gwon’s music in Ordinary Days doesn’t veer into needlessly showoff territory. It always stays on the right side of tunefulness. Gwon’s story is easy enough to follow too, presented chiefly through lyrics in this mostly sung-through musical.
Like If/Then, the focus is on the complex experiences of angst and ennui, energy and opportunity — even if just by happenstance — that comes with living in New York. DiVita’s character Claire is wrestling with a still-new relationship with Jason, played with gusto by Will Gartshore. Newly cohabiting, Claire is increasingly annoyed and frustrated by the little things that Jason says or does. If she were to leave him — well, thankfully this isn’t If/Then, and Ordinary Days never gets that burdened by the hypothetical and existential. A sudden development toward show’s end helps her decide what to do, offering a satisfactory sense of resolution.
The other twosome in this vignette-style four-character play is strictly platonic, Warren (a vibrant Samuel Edgerly) and Deb (Erin Weaver). Warren is a gay aspiring artist, more optimistic than he probably should be given that his only job, such as it is, is as an assistant of sorts to a more established painter. His duties chiefly involve the dehumanizing job of handing out fliers about his boss to passersby on the street — and then heading back to his boss’s high-rise apartment with a balcony to watch his cat. “A professional cat-sitter,” Deb calls him, after they meet at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Deb, meanwhile, is starting to doubt her place in the world, stuck between her past in a dead-end “suburb of a suburb” hometown and her present sense of feeling lost in the bustling big city, working on her graduate dissertation.
Every one of Gwon’s characters is realistic and relatable, and all four actors bring them to fitting life on stage. Ultimately, Weaver leaves the strongest impression, making Deb eminently likeable even in her most jaded and neurotic moments. Weaver also gets to sing some of the more amusing songs, including the hilariously pleading “Dear Professor Thompson” and especially the springy and frantic Sondheim-esque “Calm.” However, it’s DiVita — in true Menzel fashion – who gets to sing the show’s biggest anthem, the penultimate “I’ll Be Here.”
Over the past few years, Signature Theatre’s Matthew Gardiner has directed productions on nearly every stage in town, often with multiple shows running at once. It was savvy on the part of Round House to hire Gardiner to helm the company’s first musical production in seven years. Gardiner does his usual bang-up job in this Round House debut, aided as always by a dependable team of Signature veterans, from the cast to the crew, including Misha Kachman on sets and Frank Labovitz on costumes. William Yanesh serves as musical director, and provides the only musical accompaniment other than the assorted sound effects from Eric Shimelonis. That’s right, there’s no orchestra playing in Ordinary Days, which was written with all music emanating from the piano. In Yanesh’s hands, you don’t miss the dramatic orchestral bends and swells nearly as much as you think you will. It probably helps that the show clocks in at only 80 minutes. In fact, this is the rare musical that ends before you’re ready to part with it.
Ordinary Days was the show that introduced Gwon on the New York stage — “a promising newcomer to our talent-hungry musical theater,” as the New York Times put it in a positive review — but it’s officially the second Gwon show to grace the D.C. stage. Signature Theatre commissioned and presented the world premiere of his perky musical The Boy Detective Fails way back in 2011. With a couple other Gwon musicals starting to make the rounds, hopefully it won’t take another three years to hear from him here again.
Ordinary Days () runs to June 22 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda. Tickets are $10 to $45. Call 240-644-1100 or visit roundhousetheatre.org.