— Alison MacDonald as ‘ Claire’ and Shane Snow as ‘Jason’ in Ordinary Days. Photo by Jessie van Rijn
Ever since the Playhouse went down last March we’ve had no end of hand-wringing about the dire state of Vancouver’s cultural scene. Sure, government support for the arts in this province is pathetic, affordable venues are hard to keep un-condo’d (adios, Waldorf), and most Vancouverites would rather ski or watch hockey than go to a play or ballet. But there’s still more good art to see and hear in our town than a single person could possibly manage.
One of the strongest growth areas is musical theatre, fed by a stream of talented young performers coming out of Capilano University, Victoria’s Canadian College of Performing Arts, and other local schools. Many of these kids form their own companies or freelance for each other with the odd gig at the Arts Club. The small independent companies don’t just act as a feeder system for the larger theatres. They occupy a crucial place in our cultural ecology.
Take Relephant Theatre, a new kid on the block, presenting the BC premiere of hot New Yorker Adam Gwon’s Ordinary Days for only their second production. This is musical theatre on a shoestring: four performers, a pianist, set pieces that look scrounged from the Sally Ann. But the material and talent are high quality. And the capacity audience of 35, sitting along the walls and in the middle of tiny Carousel Studio, gets an intimate, immediate, surroundsound experience of Gwon’s relationship musical that the Playhouse could never have replicated—at a quarter the price.
Gwon’s vaguely Sondheimish lyrics and score tell the story of four young people in Manhattan. Jason (Shane Snow) and Claire (Alison MacDonald) have recently moved in together. Although they really care for each other they have a hard time making things work. Deb (Jennie Neumann) and Warren (Steven Greenfield) are much funnier, oddball characters who develop a relationship full of interesting creative tensions. The two couples never actually meet but come together in a rather contrived finale.
Neumann is absolutely terrific as Deb, driving the show with her big voice, dissatisfaction and manic energy. Leaving her suburban home—“And since I’m a dork/I moved to New York”—she tries grad school. But she’s looking for something else. “I even got a life coach,” she sings, “Who just told me to breathe./But every time I took a breath/I visualized that life coach’s death.” Neumann can make ordering a Starbuck’s an angry, compelling comic drama.
Looking for her Big Picture (one of the show’s key songs), Deb bumps into Warren, a dreamer with a unique artistic sensibility. She first calls him a stupid weirdo but Greenfield understands how to make Warren’s weirdness adorable. Trying to get a foothold in a world they don’t quite understand, Deb and gay Warren grow into the ideal Gen Y couple. Greenfield, a strong singer who also shares musical direction with pianist and director Julie McIsaac, does a great job selling the character.
MacDonald and Snow have a tougher time selling us on Claire and Jason, whose increasingly sad-sack relationship risks making their days feel genuinely ordinary. With her dynamic presence, excellent voice and ability to shape a song, MacDonald manages to bring Claire alive. Snow, though, seems musically out of his depth, and unfortunately gets to sing Gwon’s most melodically difficult ballads.
At 80 minutes without intermission the show whips by, propelled by McIsaac’s pounding piano, which makes many of Gwon’s uptempo numbers sound similar. Despite its imperfections, Ordinary Days has a fresh, youthful feel. The night I saw it, nearly all the audience was in their 20s and 30s, the same age as the characters and actors. I saw the future of Vancouver theatre and it’s in good hands.