Just beyond the hype surrounding new Broadway musicals like "Hamilton" and "Waitress," there is a subcategory of new musicals: ones that have small, intimate casts, are one act long, and -- maybe most importantly -- easy to produce in community theaters around the world. Into this genre fall productions like Jason Robert Brown's "The Last Five Years" and "Songs For a New World," both immensely popular and moving musicals that have had great success ("The Last Five Years" was adapted into a 2014 film starring Anna Kendrick).
Blackfriars' latest season installment, "Ordinary Days" by Adam Gwon, which runs through February 17, is reminiscent of Brown's style. The 90-minute one-act musical is set in 2008, in New York City, and follows four intertwining storylines: optimistic yet lonely Warren, anxious grad student Deb, and newly cohabitating couple Jason and Claire. (Fun fact: frequent Geva Theatre performer Hunter Foster originated the role of Jason.) During a narrative that is largely sung straight through, the plot unveils the surprising ways these four lives overlap in a city of more than eight million people.
Director Lindsay Warren Baker expertly guides an intimate cast through the character development necessary to keep the audience engaged and following the plot twists during 21 songs in 90 minutes. Many people in the production have worked together before, and the established chemistry between cast and crew is evident -- and helpful. The dialogue is written to break the fourth wall immediately, and the players address the audience directly throughout as they sing through their existential inner feelings.
In the role of outgoing, gay 20-something Warren, Hector Manuel provides an energetic presence with strong vocals (the closing number, "Beautiful," is especially moving) and a spot-on sense for comedic timing. He's perfectly cast opposite Kit Prelewitz (mid-20s literature grad student Deb), an effervescent performer who entertains with her expressive vocals and manic acting in numbers like "Calm."
Portraying a 30-something couple that has just moved in together, Emily Putnam (Claire) and Colin Pazik (Jason) are the cast members who interact most. They have the added pressure of romantic chemistry, and the duo poignantly captures the angst of a relationship where one person is more interested than the other. Putnam's soaring, emotive vocals thrill throughout the show, particularly on "I Will Be Here," and Pazik's thoughtful acting provides a continual authenticity for each scene.
Pianist Andy Pratt, who stays onstage the entire time, is both music director and pianist for the entire show and maintains his own persona, often (impressively) interacting with the other characters as he continues to play. The set design is interpretive and flowing, serving as a dorm room, city street, several apartments, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and more. Wooden layers and slabs and shapes resemble a city skyline that may have been built by IKEA, and it works. Artistic director Danny Hoskins tries his hand at costuming, and captures the confused fashion of 2008 accurately (plaid shirts and cardigans for everyone).
Based on the caliber of this show, the seats at Blackfriars were not as full as they should have been Saturday night, presumably because audiences aren't familiar with "Ordinary Days." But whether or not many people have heard of the show, Blackfriars has mounted a production that speaks to finding purpose and meaning in the everyday, mundane routine -- a message that desperately needs to be heard and seen.