DramaWatch: “Ordinary Days,” “Color” ways and other plays

Isaac Lamb is sweet on the simple -- but moving -- chamber musical he's directing at Broadway Rose; plus other Portland theater news and notes.

Isaac Lamb is among the most versatile, widely accomplished of Portland-area theater artists, but he believes he’s found a particular niche with his work for Broadway Rose. Amid the crowd-pleasing classics, nostalgic tributes and revues, there’s room for what we might call some less obvious fare — “new musicals, stuff that’s been only rarely produced. And they give those to me.”

Though he’s better known as an actor, Lamb has shown his chops as a director at Broadway Rose, most notably with his gorgeous and moving production two years ago of a little-known but marvelously crafted musical called Fly by Night. His latest project there, opening this weekend, is Ordinary Days, by Adam Gwon, which, like Fly by Night, centers on young adults seeking love and self-discovery in New York City.

Ordinary Days tells a different story, but (company founders Sharon Maroney and Dan Murphy) thought that it had a kinship with that show,” Lamb say, talking late on a recent night, following a dress rehearsal. “So I wanted to take a stab at it.”

Ordinary rendition: Benjamin Tissell (from left), pianist/music director Eric Nordin, Seth M. Renne, Quinlan Fitzgerald and Kailey Rhodes in “Ordinary Days” at Broadway Rose. Photo: Sam Ortega

Lamb also admits that initially he wasn’t overly impressed with the material.

“It felt very simple and sweet, but I didn’t give it a lot of credit at first,” he recalls. “But it snuck up on me. It moved me. Gwon’s whole goal was to show how extraordinary the ordinary really is. Everybody has things going on in their lives that are totally commonplace, but they’re incredibly dramatic to the people experiencing them. An ordinary day can turn extraordinary in the blink of an eye. He sneaks in more deep feeling than you expect.”

The show is essentially a song cycle, nearly sung-through, with minimal spoken text. “It’s similar in feeling to, say, (Jason Robert Brown’s) Songs for a New World, but it tracks as a single narrative.” Peter Marks of the Washington Post wrote of a 2014 production that “Gwon’s 19 songs are…lyrically witty and rich enough in narrative and character detail to power the dual plots of the musical” which “feels like such a fresh alternative to most of the over-produced stuff on Broadway.”

Lamb says he has an affinity for such stripped-down chamber pieces. One of the keys to making such shows work, of course, is having the right cast.

Benjamin Tissell, who starred in Fly by Night returns here, and I mention that a local actor once told me that life was tough with Tissell in town, blocking the path to all the good roles. Turns out, Lamb has a similar view.

“He’ll laugh if he reads this, but he reminds me of me. When he came to audition for Fly by Night, he hadn’t done a show in Portland before, and I said two things to him. ‘A — Where have you been? And B — Thank god you weren’t around when I was your age, because I never would have had the career I did; you would have taken all those roles I got.’ He’s a fantastic Everyman, he’s that Tom Hanks-y guy that you just like and are ready to go on a journey with. And he’s the last guy who’ll recognize how good he is, so he’ll just keep working and making everything better.”

As strong a performer as Tissell is, Ordinary Days is written so that “everyone is the star of the show,” Lamb says. Kailey Rhodes has established her reputation through high-level work at Artists Rep and elsewhere. Lamb calls Quinlan Fitzgerald “one of the most talented young actresses I’ve ever worked with.” And Seth M. Renne has worked with Broadway Rose, Pixie Dust Productions and so forth, but mostly stays busy managing the Gallery Theater in McMinnville.

“All four of them are highly technically proficient,” Lamb says. “And they’re all people you just instantly feel warmed by.”

Which gets us back to his initial suspicions about Ordinary Days and his change of heart.

“I felt kind of bad, in these difficult times, about doing a show that’s simple and sweet. But it was interesting seeing the way people responded at the dress rehearsal. I think it’s the kind of show that people are longing for. It feels like a hug.”

Purple pros and cons

Let’s talk about prejudice.

Granted, that word is too light for the race-and-gender-based abuses suffered by the lead character Celie and others in The Color Purple. And maybe it’s too heavy to describe my ambivalence about the musical version of that much-lauded story, which Portland Center Stage presents as its season opener.

But I suppose that’s what I’m dealing with, because I haven’t seen the musical, much less the particular production opening Friday night at the Armory. And while a certain open-mindedness is an essential tool of the arts journalism trade, so is an awareness of our unavoidable subjectivity.

Felicia Boswell (foreground) as Celie and Danea C. Osseni as Nettie, with members of the cast of “The Color Purple.” Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory.

So here’s my deal: I recall being introduced to Alice Walker’s work in college by a teacher (a philosophy professor, if memory serves) who assigned her brief, brilliant book of early stories “In Love and Trouble.” It was an electrifying read. Not long afterward, I picked up The Color Purple — at that time a new but already celebrated novel — but I found it, by contrast, to be a difficult slog. Maybe that’s because I was a male in my early twenties, but I haven’t revisited the book. Later, as someone long mystified by Oprah Winfrey’s cultural gravity, I saw no particular reason to see the film adaptation. And the tiny snippets I’ve heard of the songs from the musical adaptation hint at what I’d fear: the heated stylistic proclivities of gospel, soul and Broadway, all stacked atop one another into a kind of hyper-emotive overload.

But on the other hand: Walker’s story is rich with dramatic incident, historical resonance and thematic depth. The musical version, though it earned mixed reviews in its initial incarnation, has risen in critical estimation since the 2015 Broadway revival. Portland Center Stage has a strong track record for big, splashy musicals that still manage to convey depth. And director Timothy Douglas (whose previous PCS credits include Anna in the Tropics in 2004, A Feminine Ending in 2008, and His Eye Is on the Sparrow early last year) appears to have gathered a strong creative team and cast for this one.

California Vermin

If you haven’t seen the fantastic production of Radiant Vermin currently on at CoHo Theater, you have until Sept. 29 to make it over to that NW Portland hotbed. And you really should.

But if somehow you miss it, you’ll have something sort of like another chance next month. If you’re willing to travel: A production of the narratively jaunty, morally jaundiced Philip Ridley satire is set to open Oct. 19 in Los Angeles, by a new company called Door Number 3 Theatre.

This is not, to be clear, in any way a remount of the CoHo show, which has been expertly directed by Scott Yarbrough. But the LA production does share a Portland pedigree.

As Yarbrough told ArtsWatch recently, he first heard about the play a few years ago on one of the theater-watching tours to London that he’s conducted with Third Rail Rep. Not long after, he tried to interest that company — where he was, until recently, artistic director — in producing it, but the play didn’t make it through Third Rail’s tricky group-consensus process. That’s why he’s co-producing it at CoHo as his first post-Third Rail project.

Kapil Talwalker, Laura Faye Smith and Britt Harris rehearse “Radiant Vermin” for Door Number 3 Theatre in Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, two of Yarbrough’s Third Rail co-founders, the marvelous actors Tim True and Valerie Stevens relocated to Los Angeles. The couple recently announced that they’ve joined forces with former Portlander Britt Harris — who performed in Enda Walsh’s “Penelope,” one of the highest of Third Rail high points — to form Door Number 3. The company’s board is headed by former Third Rail board president Csaba Mera, and the inaugural production of Radiant Vermin also will feature another Portland favorite lost to Los Angeles, the always-terrific Laura Faye Smith. True is directing the show.

So…anybody up for a road trip?!

Opening

Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist play Rhinoceros is nearly 60 years old and it might well be that for all that time it has continued to speak to the present moment; its message about the danger of ideological contagion (“a veritable mental mutation,” Ionesco called it) roars with relevance whether we take it to be about fascist collaborators in mid-century Europe or whichever current place or circumstance. In our Left Coast present, you might imagine rhinos (or RINOs, perhaps) with orange-tinted skin and ridiculous coifs instead of horns. In any case, a new Portland theater venture calling itself Clever Enough planned this as its debut production. However, apparently due to various unforeseen circumstances including a lead actor’s illness, a two-week run has been cut back to a single staged reading this Saturday.

The puppetry show Under the Same Sky, presented at the Headwaters by Beady Little Eyes, includes stories “of the river, of the forest and of the mountain,” and promises “to uplift and attune audiences, young and old, to their own personal joy and heart-centered intuition.” Just FYI, in case you’re into that sort of thing.

Closing

The Keller Auditorium still has a few ready-to-serve slices of pop-musical flavor: the touring Broadway production of Waitress, adapted by Sara Bareilles and Jessie Nelson, is in town through Sunday. “While some musicals…destroy the spirit of the films they were based on, turning poignant moments into laughable musical numbers, Nelson and especially Bareilles treat (filmmaker Adrienne) Shelly’s story with the respect it deserves,” ArtsWatcher DeAnn Welker wrote in her review, also lauding the songs and the design elements. The great Seattle theater critic Misha Berson, meanwhile, put the show’s subtle feminist messaging into  pop-culture historical context.  

Private Eyes will soon shut — the Twilight Theater run of the Steven Dietz “relationship thriller,” that is. (But you can get more Dietz soon: Summit Theatre, a new company at Mt. Hood Community College, will present his play Fiction as its debut production, opening Sept. 28.)

Best line I read this week

An exchange, reputedly from a French literary magazine, with the poet/playwright/etc. Jean Cocteau.: “If your house were burning down and you could take away one thing, what would it be?” Cocteau replied, “I’d take the fire.”

— from the introduction, by Ned Rorem, to Jean Cocteau’s book of autobiographical essays and cultural observations, The Difficulty of Being.

That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.

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