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Theater review: Fresno Pacific’s ‘Ordinary Days’ offers a minimalist testament to the power of a beautifully written musical

Four actors. A church sanctuary turned into a makeshift stage. One pianist. A hint of scenic design. A basic but effective set of lighting instruments. A few props. Contemporary costumes.

Pictured above: Alex Hodson plays Claire in Fresno Pacific University’s ‘Ordinary Days.’ Photo: Chandler Nelson

It’s about as minimalist as a musical can get. But Fresno Pacific University’s “Ordinary Days” is, in its own small way, a big joy. It packs more of an emotional wallop and provides more theatrical intensity than many shows I’ve seen with budgets that were hundreds – thousands? tens of thousands? – times more.

Director Brandi Martin finds the essence of this compelling show with deft staging, a keen eye for detail, and a steady hand on her young and promising actors, each of whom seem illuminated with their passion for the production.

(Quick tip for those of you reading this review on Saturday, April 9: Two performances remain, at 2 and 7 p.m., at University Presbyterian Church.)

With its focus on just two couples, the storyline of this sung-through musical – written with flair by the wonderful composer Adam Gwon – is simple on the surface. An attractive Manhattan couple moves toward marriage, with Jason (Izaiah Ruiz) taking the next-to-last-step before by moving in with Claire (Alex Hodson). The other couple, in a less obvious move by Gwon, is moving toward platonic friendship – if struggling graduate student Deb (Tiana Gabel) can get past her annoyance with a lost-soul cat-sitter named Warren (Alexander Lujan), who insinuates himself into her life when he finds her lost graduate-thesis manuscript.

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Yet complexities bruise both of these relationships. The friends carry the comic water for the show, giving us an odd-couple dynamic. The lovers, who run into a major romantic roadblock, are more about the tears. Together, Gwon weaves in a stirring but not overpowering 9/11 theme that manifests not through docudrama detail but more through the emotional ripples that continue to this day from that horrific event.

The acting is fresh and the singing is often quite lovely. Each of the four delivers memorable moments, from Gabel’s zippy comic timing to Ruiz’s earnest longing. Hodson sings a tender version of the musical’s best known song, “I’ll Be Here,” which was recorded by Audra McDonald. And Lujan, who conjures up a weather pattern of cyclonic exuberance, is fabulously in the moment as Warren, whose basic, open-ended goodness serves as inspiration to all.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Matt Horton as accompanist, whose prowess at the keys drives Gwon’s score forward with a gentle but brisk insistence. I love the songs in the show, from the quirky “letter” Deb sings to her advisor (“Dear Professor Thompson”) to the driving syncopation of “Gotta Get Out,” as Claire finally has the mini-breakdown she’s been so obviously headed toward. (I also really like how Martin often sends her actors scurrying around the piano, which somehow seems very “big city”; the piano makes me think of a delivery truck parked in traffic on Amsterdam Avenue, forcing cars to swim around it, like a stream around a rock.)


Related story: FRESNO PACIFIC OFFERS THE INTIMATE MUSICAL ‘ORDINARY DAYS,’ A SHOW ABOUT HUMAN CONNECTIONS

Brooke Aiello’s costumes seem perfect: enough vibrancy to convey a sense of theatricality but not feel overly designed. Elizabeth Davis’ lighting design dials up the emotional level when needed. I was even touched by the handcrafted approach to the scenic elements, with little silhouetted black cutouts of New York landmarks placed in the cubbyhole design of the front space of the church. There’s even a hand-lettered sign for the Times Square subway station.

All of which reminds us that theater isn’t about big, fancy sets or ravishing costumes. It’s about human connections. “Ordinary Days” connects. And that’s beautiful. The Fresno Pacific community should be proud of its small but mighty theater program.


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Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com

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