Musicals, with their outrageous sets and costumes, 11 o’clock numbers, and dance breakdowns, aren’t a common sight at Great Canadian Theatre Company. Their current production of Adam Gwon’s Ordinary Days, however, shows that none of those things are necessary to produce quality musical theatre that still maintains a significant degree of theatricality.
Ordinary Days follows four young people living in New York City in two (mostly) separate plotlines: first are Warren, an aspiring artist who house/cat-sits for a more successful artist (who’s in prison for vandalism) and wanders around the city handing out fliers printed with pithy sayings; and Deb, an English Lit grad student who wants to be a successful academic but also seems to really hate academia. When Deb leaves her master notebook behind with all of her thesis notes and Warren picks it up, it initiates an encounter that sees the stressed-out student and the easygoing artist learning a thing or two about perspective from each other. In the other plotline, Jason has just moved in with Claire but their relationship runs into trouble when it becomes apparent that something is keeping Claire from moving forward with their life together.
The strength of this production rests not just with Gwon’s fun and emotional score and libretto or even the cast and accompanist’s obvious talents, but also with director Eric Coates’ choice to keep everything minimalistic. Too often musical theatre is assumed to be an over-the-top experience associated with big-budget Broadway shows, though facilities for these types of extravaganzas in Ottawa are few: the National Arts Centre’s Southam Hall and the main auditoriums at Centrepointe in Nepean and Shenkman in Orleans are the most obvious. Musicals also appear pretty regularly at the Gladstone and occasionally at Ottawa Little Theatre and the University of Ottawa’s Department of Theatre, though these spaces suffer from a lack of space for musicians and small house sizes that can often lead to troublesome acoustics.
GCTC’s main auditorium similarly is built on a smaller scale than the big houses, but rather than adopting a ‘go big or go home’ attitude Coates and the production team behind Ordinary Days have gone in the other direction. Part of this lies with the material: Ordinary Days is less of a traditionally structured musical with long scenes of dialogue interspersed with showstopping numbers, and more of a song cycle where the story is told entirely through a series of songs with little to no dialogue between. With a simplistic structure and small cast size of four performers, it makes far more sense to go with a production that evokes the feel of living in an iconic city rather than offering a big spectacle of it.
A clear example of minimal yet evocative design comes from the interplay between set and lighting: Seth Gerry (GCTC’s resident Production Manager and Technical Designer) keeps the set almost completely bare, with an angled L-shaped platform and a bench being only physical set pieces, but this leaves much more opportunity for a dynamic lighting design. I’ll admit that lighting tends to be a design element I don’t notice as much as others when watching stage plays, but I couldn’t take my eyes off it this time.
The exposed back wall of the auditorium is initially lit up with vertical stage lights à la the floodlights on the Empire State Building, and once the show gets going the wall becomes a giant projection screen for doodles of the skyline, or the map of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or whatever happens to be an appropriate background to contextualize the scene. The platform has some sort of white finish atop its black surface that in some lights make it look like a dusty sidewalk and in others like marble flooring, and window gobos (tin filters that slide in front of the lighting instrument to work like shadow puppets to create patterns of light on the stage) to give the feeling of the characters’ respective apartments provide further examples of Gerry’s lighting-first approach.
Light and music take up no physical space but they can definitely affect the way we feel, and letting these elements shine (pun somewhat intended) ahead of other design elements speaks to a sophisticated understanding of how to stage musical theatre in a way that doesn’t feel like a tired cliché. It also works with the less original parts of the material: a musical about young people in New York isn’t an especially innovative concept but with an expressive rather than a presentational design the New York-iness isn’t overstated like it could have been.
The musical elements and the performers who deliver them are likewise strong. Wendy Berkelaar’s powerhouse performance on the lone piano as accompaniment doesn’t lag throughout the non-stop 85-minute show, and as tiring as musicals can be on their actors I can’t imagine how exhausted Berkelaar must be at the end of every performance. The performers likewise bring their impressive vocal abilities to the fore: most impressive in terms of sheer vocal power perhaps are Gab Desmond and Jennifer Cecil as Jason and Claire, but Katie Ryerson and Zach Counsil as Deb and Warren are wonderfully expressive with their facial expressions and the musical stretches that involve a half-singing, half-talking kind of delivery (like the scene where Deb agonizes over the wording of an email to her academic supervisor) are an especial strength for these performers. Since the Deb/Warren plotline is more comedic and the Jason/Claire storyline packs more of an emotional punch it works out well that the actors who play these characters are playing to different vocal strengths with their delivery.
Like I said at the beginning, musicals haven’t been a major part of Great Canadian Theatre Company’s onstage offerings. Ordinary Days however shows that musicals can be part of a major theatre company’s repertoire without having to be escapist entertainment, or children’s theatre (this is very much a show about adult issues, but I wouldn’t caution you against bringing children in), or ride on the momentum of a well-established Broadway hit in the same way that community productions of musical theatre often do.
We’re slowly breaking out of this way of thinking, but the traditional notion that musicals don’t count as serious theatre still prevails to a certain extent in this day and age. Even when I was in my undergraduate program at uOttawa there were a fair number of musical theatre fans in my classes (myself included) who were disappointed to learn that serious academia found certain kinds of musical theatre interesting (Greek tragedy, opera, Brecht) and worthy of study but that the more ‘traditional’ kind of musical (The Sound of Music, Grease, etc.) was barely worth considering from that point of view.
At the same time however, in the last decade or so we’ve seen musicals become more and more of a regular feature at the National Arts Centre locally, and on a more national level the musical productions at Stratford (next season will feature The Music Man and The Rocky Horror Show) are now as much of a box office draw as the Shakespearean plays (their 2009 production of West Side Story was preferred by several critics to the Broadway revival that was playing at the same time). There are a few things about Ordinary Days that I’d rather weren’t there (young people trying to ‘make it’ in New York is a rather tired concept), but on the whole this production sets the stage for a growing musical theatre scene in Ottawa that accepts that musicals can say as much about the human condition as ‘legitimate theatre’, albeit in a different way.