The Manhattanite Project: Oh, to be young and sing-songy in New York!
The Manhattanite Project: Oh, to be young and sing-songy in New York!

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There’s very little about Round House’s production of Ordinary Days that’s typical for the Bethesda theater company. For starters, the show’s a musical, the first the theater has produced since 2007. To direct, the theater hired Matthew Gardiner, whose efforts at Signature include Dream Girls, The Threepenny Opera, and Xanadu. To bolster an otherwise local cast, Round House brought in a Broadway soprano. The result is an endearing chamber musical featuring strong performances that tower over the lightweight material.

Ordinary Days follows four New Yorkers through their relationship rollercoasters and career highs and lows. Although composer and lyricist Adam Gwon is a young American, the show premiered off the West End in London, then opened at New York’s Roundabout Theatre in 2009. It’s almost entirely sung through—what would have been called an operetta back in the Gilbert and Sullivan days. The performers need stamina and voices that sound great whether belting or quietly cracking jokes in character. Gardiner cast himself a great quartet and found ideal leads in Will Gartshore and Janine DiVita.

One beautiful thing about theater in Washington is that local actors with day jobs can end up singing opposite a brilliant soprano who came down on the Acela. Gartshore, a lobbyist for the World Wildlife Fund, sounds better than ever when singing duets with DiVita, whose credits include serving as Sutton Foster’s understudy for Anything Goes. His tenor is warm and full of feeling, her soprano clear and without excessive vibrato. Gwon’s score, played at Round House by onstage pianist William Yanesh, pulses with tricky rhythms, and the choruses are usually underscored by an ostinato pattern or a lovely glissando rather than a melody.

It’s a shame, however, that the musical performances are more memorable than this musical itself. Gartshore and DiVita play a pair of noncommittal lovers who argue about mundane things like how to find space for two in a Manhattan closet and whether it’s bad form to bring cabernet to a dinner party where monkfish is on the menu. The point of the show is to sing about quotidian quandaries, but it’s a conceit pulled off with more heart and sophistication in other shows, most recently If/Then.

Granted, that musical requires a much larger budget and cast, but there are things Round House could have done to make this production feel like less of a workshop. For example, there are no costume changes, which is awkward when DiVita has to sing about her dress getting wet. (She’s wearing chartreuse skinny jeans.) Projections could help draw audiences into the bustling world of the show. Misha Kachman’s minimalist set consist of a stage lined with grab-a-newspaper boxes and a few pieces of furniture to indicate whether a scene is set in Starbucks, Claire and Jason’s apartment, or the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The latter is especially in need of a projected Monet. Gallery K is where Erin Weaver’s plucky grad student, Deb, meets Warren (Samuel Edgerly as a professional catsitter and aspiring artist). For better or worse, Weaver has become the go-to local actress when a script calls for quirky with a touch of neuroses, and she’s very funny here, especially when singing an entire song about asking her advisor for an extension on her Virginia Woolf thesis. Warren thinks their meeting is serendipitous kismet, and opines to Deb, “In my head we hug and our friendship sets sail, like an almost, not quite, New York, sort of, fairy tale.” It’s a dangerous, self-deprecating refrain for Gwon to write, in the show that is sort of, not quite, almost a pretty good musical about four Manhattanites.