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No Refund Theater’s ‘Ordinary Days’ Delights, Serenades, & Subverts Any Negative Expectations About Musicals

I can remember the first time I saw a musical in a theater: a Catholic high school production of Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat. Maybe it was the fact that I was a smartass middle-schooler preternaturally disposed to hate anything my teachers dragged my class to, or maybe it was because the VeggieTales adaptation of the same Bible story was so much better, but either way, I hated what I saw in that sanctified auditorium. Ever since that fateful day, I have borne an unrequited grudge against musicals for their schlock and wanton indulgence in cliché… that is, until now.

When I wasn’t smiling like a toddler at Disney World, I tried to think of ways to describe Ordinary Days while I was watching it. I could wax English-major-lyrical until the cows come home, but a margin scrawl in my notebook summarizes it best: “Rent!… but actually good.”

Ordinary Days, directed by Penn State graduate and No Refund Theater veteran Victoria Jones, tells the story of four New Yorkers’ everyday lives, with all the rom-com-ish tropery you might expect: a couple of vague upper-middle class status comprised of Jason, a tongue-in-cheek, fast-moving romantic, and Claire, an idealist with baggage still unsettled; Deb, a high-strung and foul-mouthed academic writing what’s apparently a very stressful thesis on Virginia Woolf; and, finally, Warren, the fool with a heart of gold and no plans for the future save a desire to live the artistic New York dream.

Spelled out loud, it sounds cliché. And in some (though harmless) regards, it is. There are only so many narrative structures out there, and the minute New York gets brought into a musical, decades worth of the city’s depiction flood the audience’s heads. But Ordinary Days manages to avoid the pitfalls of preening, self-important melodrama (looking at you, Rent!) because the focus is in the mundane and human.

Almost every word in the play is sung. The performers are phenomenal, and the treat of hearing them hit so many surprising and unexpectedly thrilling notes is worth a trip to this show on its own. However, the significance of the perpetual song lies in its implicit assertion that turbulent, irritating life — not even despite its ups and downs but rather because of them — is worth celebrating.

That turbulent, irritating life unfolds across a wry twist on the classic depiction of New York City. Yes, key plot moments — involving Jason and Claire’s troubled relationship and Warren’s returning of a lost thesis manuscript to the frazzled Deb — unfold at the MET, and the sing-a-logue inevitably makes nods to NYC commonplaces (e.g., bagel, Bleeker Street). But every sung “New York” has a mocking, trilled “r.” Warren, after getting Deb’s thesis back to her, importunes a misanthropic Deb for friendship in the name of a “New York — sort of — fairytale.”

What turns Ordinary Days from good to great, though, is the genius of Jones’ direction. The show owes a colossal debt of inspiration to Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway beyond Deb’s scholarship; the pairs of Claire & Jason and Deb & Warren orbit each other, singing about modern life’s irritations and worries, without the knowledge that their songs come together to form a beautifully immersive harmony. Jones uses the Forum Building’s lecture hall layout to her advantage, running actors up along the stair and through the rows. Jones manages an all-encompassing simultaneity, wrapping the music and the actors around the audience. She even pulls off a balcony scene with one of the higher rows that, I will admit, made my jaw drop (if you’ve read Dalloway, think Septimus Smith).

Beyond the performers’ talent (honed thanks to the musical direction of Penn State junior Isabella Roll), beyond the play’s statements about the everyday and human connection, and beyond Jones’ realized directorial brilliance, what makes NRT’s Ordinary Days worth seeing above all else is that it is a fun, touching musical. The writing is smart — not smart in an overwritten way, but bitingly and, every now and then, profoundly smart. The music keeps you on your toes. The characters are likable and flawed. In short, you feel a real connection to these four people despite yourself. Which is, after all, the point: the play urges us to see beyond our visions of ourselves as acting out certain roles (our self-imagined “big pictures,” in the show’s wording) so that we may find meaning in the mundane, in the quotidian… in the ordinary days. A line from Deb sums up my experience with this show quite nicely: “It’s a little precious, but it spoke to me.”

This week is busy. You probably have a lot of work and stress that came with the crunch before spring break. And that is precisely why you must go see Ordinary Days in 111 Forum at 8 p.m. Wednesday, February 27, through Friday, March 1. Take it from a guy who used to hate musicals: Stop worrying and learn to love the song.

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About the Author

Steve Schneible

Recovering Bethlehem, PA native. English & Psych student, PSU SHC class of 2021. Paterno Fellow. Narcissism Hour Showrunner. Kalliope Fiction Coordinator. Earnest and usually good-natured milquetoast. Baby Onward State contributor. Email: [email protected] Moderately amusing Twitter account: @steve_schneibs

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