Ordinary Days, which premiered in 2009 as the third low-price offering from the Roundabout Underground at their black-box subcellar on 46th Street, was one of those four-character, no set, young-people-try-to-cope-with-life-and-reality-in-Manhattan chamber musicals. Small enough to be produced anywhere, for a song. “For a song” was and is a good description; Ordinary Days is nothing but songs, delivered by four mismatched Manhattanites who—guess!—have trouble finding purpose and relating to others. This sort of revue-like musical evening is not uncommon along off-Broadway, going back to its earliest days in the mid-1950s.
What made Ordinary Days something more than ordinary, during its two-month run downstairs at the Roundabout, was up-and-coming songwriter Adam Gwon. A cabaret-bag of songs is not much to build a compelling comedy-drama upon, no; but the author revealed a refreshing ability to write musically pleasant tunes featuring sometimes impressive wordplay and an ability to express character through song. Ordinary Days was soon gone, but not altogether forgotten. Thanks to a most helpful cast recording, the show made its way into the licensing world as a small-cast, small-scale option. I suppose that the show does quite well in that arena, the abundant humor and feel-good cheer likely making it a popular easy-to-produce offering.
Put back together and back on the professional New York stage, in a bigger and more fully realized production (and with Roundabout’s lone piano upgraded to a three-piece band), Ordinary Days remains something more than ordinary. Likable, brisk, and professionally mounted with a friendly and strong-singing cast, the Keen production of Ordinary Days makes an enjoyably pleasant evening. But it remains not much more than one of those young-folk-trying-to-cope revues. Good enough, no complaints; but earthshaking or invigorating? Not so much.
It might be instructive, in addressing Ordinary Days, to relate my own exposure to the material. I did not see the show at the Roundabout, but I did review the CD. I remember staring warily at Ordinary Days on the stack of albums to cover, fearing that it would be typical of the unknown-young-songwriters-putting-together-revues-about-themselves-because-they-couldn’t-get-anything-else-produced genre.
I was very much surprised and pleased when I started listening to the album. The songs—while not extraordinary in the manner of, say, Fun Home or Dear Evan Hansen—were listenable; as mentioned above, the tunes were fine and the lyrics offered impressive song-stories, song after song.
Then I came to what is more or less the 11 o’clock number. (Nowadays, with 80-minute musicals like Ordinary Days offering 7 p.m. performances, the 11 o’clock number can come at 8:15).
My ears perked up at “I’ll Be Here,” thanks to the well-realized setup and pattern: boy meets girl in cute manner, boy offers a possible date explaining that even if the girl doesn’t appear, “I’ll be here.” This continues through several episodes, in a manner that promises a grand payoff. Little did I know: The piece climaxes in catastrophe, with nothing left but the boy’s final message—“I’ll be here”—recorded for posterity on an answering machine.
The song—introduced by Lisa Brescia, back then—left me gasping. I replayed it several times, to the extent that it more or less wiped the rest of Ordinary Days out of my thoughts. I next heard the song in 2013, at the tail end of a most astonishing Audra McDonald concert at Carnegie Hall. After an evening of Guettel, Gershwin, Kander, Brown and others, she stepped forward with a recent song by a promising young writer and pointedly introduced Gwon, sitting somewhat self-consciously in the center box. Then she sang “I’ll Be Here.” The attentive audience instantly warmed to the song’s charm, suddenly turned breathless with heartbreak, and ended with a sea of tears from what seemed like all 2,800 people in the place. Even the onstage musicians. McDonald included the song on her then-new CD, “Go Back Home,” and I won’t be disappointed if you quit reading right now and search for Audra’s rendition.
I’ve also heard “I’ll Be Here” sung in cabaret, notably by Liz Callaway (who has also recorded it). Just last year, I came across the score and played the song on the piano to the very same effect, all but breaking down at the moment of realization. This is clearly one of the most powerfully emotional songs from our modern musical theater, and it marks Gwon as someone to watch.
All of which is to say that I sat through the entirety of Ordinary Days waiting for the song, and after a while wondering how the song could possibly fit into this cheerfully energetic young-people-in-New-York story. The answer, I found, was: Not so well. I can’t tell you how and when and why the song was written, but it certainly feels like the author—given the opportunity to introduce the show at the Roundabout Underground—saw fit to include what he might understandably consider his best song.
The Keen Company has given Ordinary Days a well-appointed production, staged by artistic director Jonathan Silverstein. The performing quartet are all quite good, led by Whitney Bashor who sings the song and who might be remembered for her performance of “Another Life” in Jason Robert Brown’s Bridges of Madison County. Marc delaCruz sympathetically plays the prospective boyfriend, Sarah Lynn Marion is energetic and musically brash as the dork girl, and Kyle Sherman is immensely likeable as the nerd boy. John Bell leads the three-piece band, playing first-rate and apparently new orchestrations by Bruce Coughlin.
So consider Ordinary Days at the Keen a perfectly enjoyable evening, which might prove quite a crowd pleaser. But the piece remains what it was: a promising showcase for a talented songwriter as opposed to a fully realized musical.
Ordinary Days opened October 17, 2018, at Theatre Row and runs through November 17. Tickets and information: keencompany.org