Feelings can be sneaky things.
For instance, as I sat through the Broadway Rose production of Adam Gwon’s musical Ordinary Days, the first tear that came coursing down the side of my nose took me entirely by surprise. Nothing tragic or especially melancholy had happened onstage, nor for that matter had the show reached any moment of sweetly happy release. I do recall feeling a tightening high in my chest, but in retrospect I can’t say whether that came before or after I had to wipe my eye. Clearly I was feeling something, but exactly what or why wasn’t immediately obvious.
Ordinary Days, which plays through Oct. 14 at the Broadway Rose New Stage in Tigard, isn’t what you’d call a tearjerker. It’s bright, energetic, poppy, full of cute, wry observations and offhand humor. But its take on the quotidian challenges facing four young New Yorkers builds a subtle strength — through both the accretion of tiny narrative details and the inevitable tensions of characters seeking connections — until deep, multifaceted feelings come pushing through the surface simplicity.
That surface is appealing in its own right. The show consists of almost entirely of 20 songs that introduce us to the four characters — all trying to find themselves and their futures in the big city — and sketch the arc of their relationships over a brief but impactful time, perhaps a week or two. Gwon’s tunes sound a bit too much alike after a while, either nervously upbeat or twinklingly reflective, but they’re catchy, never saccharine, and the lyrics are loaded with clever rhymes that somehow still feel conversational.
In order, we meet:
Warren (Seth M. Renne), an artist’s assistant (i.e., cat sitter) who hands out fliers on the street and finds that his openhearted, wide-eyed outlook isn’t reciprocated (“but the city tends to make me feel invisible”).
Deb (Quinlan Fitzgerald), a perpetually dissatisfied, grumpy grad student who soon manages to misplace the notebook with all her thesis research (“I’ve always known that I had places to go, dreams to fulfill and ideas to discover — they’re just never where I am”).
Jason (Benjamin Tissell), who’s eager — perhaps naively so — to solidify himself in his girlfriend’s life by moving into her already cramped apartment (“setting up and squeezing in, that’s my department”).
And Claire (Kailey Rhodes), Jason’s guarded girlfriend, whose unexamined past lingers on in more than just her clutter (“somehow I’ve been petrified to see what’s been kept inside these chests and drawers”).
Warren and Deb lurch awkwardly toward friendship after he finds her notebook and arranges to return it in person. Jason and Claire run into problems making space for each others possessions and unspoken emotional needs. It’s standard stuff, sure, but well-observed and engaging.
That these people and their problems are ordinary is, of course, the point; it’s not hard to recognize their types or their dilemmas. That the two couples (one romantic, the other platonic) cross paths only coincidentally, on a Saturday afternoon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, underlines Gwon’s thematic simile of society as like a pointillist or impressionist painting: see these folks individually and they’re distinct yet similar dots in the cityscape, but we have to see them in connection to see the big picture.
As directed here by Isaac Lamb, the show feels warm and inviting, and assuredly paced. Emily Wilken’s simple stair-stepped scenic design provides versatile playing spaces and spatial hints of the emotional dynamics, while the dots and streaks and color fields of Carl Faber’s lighting suggest the frenetic pace of city life. The actors all create clear, vibrant characters; Renne most charmingly of the bunch. Their singing is a step up from what you can hear on the Ordinary Days Off-Broadway cast recording — an improvement especially noticeable in Jason’s songs (Tissell sounds like a real person rather than a compendium of cliche pop-vocal phrasing). And were all four not so stellar, I’d have happily spent the entire show watching musical director/pianist Eric Nordin, whose crisp articulation and comfortable time feel help the accompaniment feel like a vital character in its own right.
As for deep feelings, Gwon reaches for a big one near the show’s end, pulling sentimentality and gravity together within a quintessentially New York plot twist and image.
It’s all part of the story of modern life, in which the serendipitous and the tragic alike can sneak up on ordinary days.