Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

Ordinary Days, The King and I and Noël and Gertie

Steve Pacek, Michael Philip O'Brien, Whitney Bashor and Alex Keiper
Photo by John Flak
As Ordinary Days begins, audience members are facing each other from chairs on two sets of bleachers; a narrow playing area is between the bleachers. Suddenly music starts to play, and four of those audience members, sitting in seemingly random seats, stand up and begin singing. They are four faces in the crowd, just like us—but with stories to tell.

Adam Gwon's musical about a quartet of Manhattanites has been staged by director Joe Calarco in the third floor Skybox room at the Adrienne Theatre, in a production by 11th Hour Theatre Company. And, as Calarco showed in his memorable productions of The Light in the Piazza and Elegies, he has a deft way of fashioning simple but powerful imagery out of ordinary objects. Craig Vetter's set design consists of little more than a couple of radiator covers for the actors to stand on and an antique mirror with a circular frame that the actors trace wistfully with their fingers, expressing the longing they can't state in words. The room is surrounded by curtains, which the actors draw aside to reveal windows—real windows, which look out on Sansom Street and Moravian Street. In the moonlight, the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood proves to be a suitable stand-in for Greenwich Village. Like so much of this production, it feels real.

Calarco's low key, unfussy staging elevates Ordinary Days. But the show itself, despite moments of beauty, playfulness and startling insight, doesn't always reach the heights composer/lyricist Gwon aims for. It's the story of twenty- and thirty-somethings trying to make it in the big city, facing various obstacles we've all seen before. There's Deb, who was so frustrated growing up in the suburbs that she moved to the city to pursue a Master's in English, only to find herself even more frustrated ("I don't remember the Muppets getting hives when they took Manhattan," she sings in a typically frazzled moment). Through a series of mishaps, she meets the guileless Warren, who works as a cat-sitter but yearns for the day when "this whole city's gonna look at me." Meanwhile, yuppies Claire and Jason have been dating for a few months when they decide to move in together—but petty arguments and nagging doubts seem to be driving them further apart. Their songs express their misgivings, as they tell the audience what they can't bear to tell each other: she admits "When he looks right at me I just want to run away," while he wonders "If we're moving nowhere, should I move on?".

Gwon's lyrics are frequently funny and perceptive, full of finely detailed observations—but the subjects of his songs, ranging from Starbucks to museums to wine, often don't seem like they're worth writing songs about. And the melodies aren't especially distinctive. Played on a piano at one end of the room by Musical Director Eric Ebbenga, the songs tend to be staccato shuffles or ballads with florid, dramatic crescendos, reminiscent of many contemporary musicals. The fast-moving songs are undoubtedly difficult to sing, but you'll remember the emotions more than the tunes.

The cast is terrific, with the more comic couple—Alex Keiper's tremulous, neurotic Deb and Steve Pacek's lovably hyper Warren—making the stronger impression. Whitney Bashor and Michael Philip O'Brien sing beautifully as Claire and Jason, and their easygoing smiles give way to earnest looks of anguish and concern.

There's no dialogue in Ordinary Days; Gwon's score is sung-through, meaning the dialogue is conveyed through the lyrics. One problem with this approach is that, if you're not listening intently, it can be easy to miss important details—like the characters' names. On the way out of the theater, I heard one man praising O'Brien's performance, but referring to him as "the guy who played the one in love with the blonde."

Ordinary Days is very good, even though it doesn't quite live up to its potential. But its touching and amusing tales of young people looking for their place in life will certainly resonate with a lot of people. And it's worth seeing for the excellent performances and superb, striking staging. It may not be a classic, but it will stay in your memory for a long time.

Ordinary Days runs through December 18, 2011, and is presented by 11th Hour Theatre Company at The Skybox at the Adrienne, 2030 Sansom Street, Philadelphia. Ticket are $15-$30 and are available by calling 267-987-9865 or online at

Rachel York and Mel Sagrado Maghuyop
Photo by Mark Garvin
If your taste runs to more conventional musicals, you can head over to the Walnut Street Theatre to catch Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I. Richard Rodgers' timeless melodies hold up beautifully, and Oscar Hammerstein II's graceful and clever lyrics shape the characters perfectly. But it's not the team's best work. Hammerstein's script is often trite and creaky, and lacking in dramatic tension; the conflicts are resolved pretty much the way you'd expect them to be. And the culture clash at the heart of the story can become uncomfortably patronizing at times. Yet The King and I is never boring, and director/choreographer Marc Robins' production makes for a swift and sweet evening.

Part of what makes The King and I work so well is that it has a heroine the audience can identify with and root for. That's Anna Leonowens, the real-life British governess who went to Siam in the 1860s to instruct the king's dozens of children. And the Walnut has an especially endearing Anna in Rachel York, who wins over the king's court with unaffected warmth, precise diction, and a gorgeous, crystalline voice. York's performance serves as a great reminder of what star quality is all about. Mel Sagrado Maghuyop is a worthy sparring partner as the stubborn and imperious king, and there are strong vocal turns by Angelica-Lee Aspiras as the most senior of the king's many wives, and by Austin Ku and Manna Nichols as the young lovers. Colleen Grady's costumes run the gamut from the stately to the exotic, and Robert Andrew Kovach's sets are colorful and grandiose.

The King and I blends serious and comic elements in an agreeable way, but it's more respectable than stirring; it doesn't touch the heart in a way that elevates it to the pantheon of the greatest musicals. It sometimes seems like a dusty relic from another era (especially during the too-long second act ballet). But when a relic is done this well, it's hard to complain. And when the audience claps in time as York and Maghuyop make those familiar polka steps to "Shall We Dance?," it's hard not to clap along.

The King and I runs through January 8, 2012, on the Mainstage at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. Ticket prices range from $10 to $95, and are available by calling the box office at 800-982-2787, or online at or

Susan Wilder and Will Stutts
Photo by Mark Garvin
Gertrude Lawrence scored one of her greatest triumphs as the original Anna in The King and I; in fact, it was Lawrence who bought the stage rights to the story and suggested it to Rodgers and Hammerstein. So it's fitting that, three flights up from its Mainstage at its Independence Studio on 3, the Walnut is presenting Noël and Gertie, a show about Lawrence and her lifelong friend and artistic soul mate Noël Coward. It's too bad that this superficial tribute to two legendary artists captures little of what made them special.

Scripted by Sheridan Morley (who also wrote biographies of both Coward and Lawrence), Noël and Gertie runs nearly two hours, and is stuffed with the stars' greatest hits. There are scenes from some of Coward's best plays (including Private Lives and Blithe Spirit) and nineteen of his best songs, on subjects melancholy ("If Love Were All," "I'll See You Again") and humorous ("Mrs. Worthington," "Has Anybody Seen Our Ship?"). But they're framed by anecdotes presented in as dry and detached a manner as possible; one of Coward's speeches actually begins "I was born the 16th of December, 1899 ..." The play covers five decades in their lives in as brief and shallow a way as possible. When the show is over, you may have learned a lot more about Coward and Lawrence, but you won't feel you've gotten to know them. It's telling that the play waits 90 minutes before mentioning Coward's homosexuality, and even then it's only a single passing reference.

Will Stutts (who also directed) and Susan Wilder play the title roles. Both approximate the originals fairly well; Stutts summons Coward's stiff-upper-lip reserve, while Wilder epitomizes good breeding as she smiles and slinks around the cramped stage in a series of elegant gowns (Mark Mariani provided the costumes). Stutts talk-sings in the Coward style, but Wilder's soprano doesn't soar nearly as high as Lawrence's did. Owen Robbins accompanies them on piano.

If you're a Coward fan (like me), the excerpts will only make you yearn for full-length versions of the plays. If you're not, these snippets of two intriguing lives probably won't win you over. As the real Noël and Gertie might say, it's all so droll and all so proper, and all so frightfully dull.

Noël and Gertie runs through December 31, 2011, at the Walnut Street Theatre Independence Studio on 3, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $30, and are available by calling the box office at 215-574-3550, or online at or

-- Tim Dunleavy

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