Nautilus Music Theater is in the midst of moving to a larger, first-floor performance suite in the same Lowertown building where they’ve been housed on the upper floor in recent years. The company is still putting finishing touches on this new space (a grand opening celebration is slated for October, according to artistic director Ben Krywosz). But they’re christening their new home now, with a winsome chamber music-theater work for four actor/singers by almost-but-not-quite-mid-career New York composer Adam Gwon.
“Ordinary Days” is a newish work, a kind of narrative song cycle where the plot’s movement and all character interactions are carried by a succession of 21 musical numbers. It’s a coming-of-age story, and to its bones a tale of the city: four ordinary New Yorkers and two almost-sort of fairy tales, about love after a heartbreak, and how the warmth of friendship can take the chill off a too-big, indifferent world. An ambitious and prickly 20-something grad student from flyover country (Jill Anna Ponasik) makes her way to New York to try and finish her languishing dissertation on Virginia Woolf. An emerging artist (played with endearing earnestness and gentle humor by Max Wojtanowicz) aims to distinguish himself from the crowd of other anonymous creative hopefuls in the city. A couple — old enough to bear some scars, but young enough to imagine they might yet start again fresh — navigate the perils and promise of lasting commitment; a formidably talented pair, Kersten Rodau and Doug Scholz-Carlson, manage the tricky balance of communicating this couple’s growing peevishness with one another, insecurities and depth of affection with convincing nuance.
The show debuted with a full production in 2009 in New York, and has since spawned a CD with recordings by the original cast and many, many iterations across the country. Indeed, Krywosz tells our audience that a selection of songs from “Ordinary Days” made an appearance, early on, in the Nautilus’ Rough Cuts series some years ago, sung by this very cohort of performers.
Gwon’s brisk-to-breakneck lyrical style is often compared to Sondheim; his best musical riffs have the infectious charm of a good pop song. But as I listen, I find the disarming mix of naked melancholy and deceptively light-hearted wit in this production calls to mind no less than Cole Porter. The ensemble cast – all seasoned pros, two of them at the helm of their own theater companies elsewhere — delivers impeccably on the promise of Gwon’s heartfelt score. I’ve some quibbles with his sometimes glib characterizations of “difficult” women. Sometimes his melodies swell beneath the lyrics when I wish they’d take a subtler course. And there’s a plot turn I won’t reveal here — a big one toward the end you’ll recognize instantly — that left me in tears in the moment, but which in retrospect feels like a needlessly grand, arguably manipulative bit of pathos that’s superfluous to the story.
But these really are quibbles. It’s a genial, witty production — an optimistic, feel-good show with memorably clever, well-executed songs. A fitting housewarming for this always-rewarding theater company.
“Ordinary Days,” words and music by Adam Gwon, with stage direction by Ben Krywosz and musical direction by Mindy Eschedor, will be on stage in Nautilus Music Theater’s new space, 308 Prince Street, #190, St. Paul. For ticket information and specific showtimes, visit http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/455244. For more on the company’s present and future events, check them out on Facebook: www.facebook.com/NautilusMusicTheater.