Imperfect relationships play out in Writers' delightful 'Days'
For anyone passionate about musicals, who has observed with dismay stage adaptations of Hollywood hits (and misses), frothy relationship revues and jukebox shows cobbled together from a pop star's back catalog, "Days Like Today" is an utter delight.
A wry, modern show about love in its various permutations, "Days Like Today" -- helmed by Michael Halberstam in its world premiere at Writers Theatre -- rejuvenated my faith in the future of the American musical.
That optimism stems in part from the winning combination of Laura Eason ("Sex With Strangers"), who wrote the book, and composer/lyricist Alan Schmuckler ("We Three Lizas," "How Can You Run With a Shell on Your Back?"). Lush and mature, Schmuckler's score is notable for its wonderfully insistent arpeggios that flow like water over stones in a stream. Alternating between delicate and demanding, his songs evolve naturally from Eason's contemporary dialogue.
The musical was inspired by several plays by Charles Mee and opens with a lovely image of a bride-to-be gazing at her wedding gown. The woman is Tessa, an accomplished twenty-something played with sublime vulnerability and authenticity by Emily Berman, who has the rich earthy mezzo of Julia Fordham and the waifish looks of Alanis Morissette.
The time is autumn. The place is an expansive Martha's Vineyard vacation home (designed by Scott Bradley), owned by Tessa's separated but still atypically intimate and emotionally dependent parents Frank (Jonathan Weir) and Maria (Susie McMonagle).
Frank, a classics professor, has brought his younger lover Edmund (Stephen Schellhardt) to Tessa's wedding. Maria, meanwhile, is accompanied by her current lover, the savvy Francois (an airily confidant Jeff Parker), Tessa's former dance instructor who now heads up his own dance company.
Unfortunately, Tessa's hopes for the perfect wedding crumble when fiance Arnaud (Jarrod Zimmerman) inexplicably calls it quits minutes before the ceremony. Devastated, Tessa wanders the streets, eventually walking into a pizza parlor where she meets delivery man James (an eager, likable Will Mobley). A hopeless romantic, James falls in love at first sight. Unfortunately, the broken Tessa cannot return his affection.
The action unfolds over a year during which Tessa emerges from her depression while her parents and their respective partners sort out their romantic entanglements. Edmund wants marriage, but their age difference worries Frank. While Maria and Francois seem satisfied with their no-strings-attached relationship, closer inspection reveals it for the hollow coupling it is.
Ultimately, the search for perfection proves impossible. Love's reality is messy, complicated, frustrating and -- when the timing and partners are right -- exhilarating.
The acting, like the singing, is pitch-perfect. Berman makes Tessa's anguish palpable. Case in point: the haunting lament "Where There Was Bone," where she describes how sorrow has transformed her. Weir and McMonagle reveal the co-dependency of a couple who are each other's safety net as well as each other's anchor, meaning neither is able to sail forward into uncharted waters with a new partner.
"Welcome to My House" is a sharp, frenetic portrait of family dysfunction, while "Making It Up As We Go" is a sly tune about being gay in America. As Edmund explains, "they hate us much less than they did."
The score is a gem that music director Doug Peck and conductor/pianist Austin Cook have polished to a high shine. Also deserving mention is Jesse Klug's superb lighting, spot-on re-creations of the beachy blues and too-bright white of summer, the warm autumn gloaming and dim, shadowy winter.
Halberstam's direction is emotional without being saccharine. While I loved the image of Tessa stepping out of her clothes into the new phases of her life, I found some of the stage business and effects -- particularly falling petals to represent changing seasons -- a bit precious.
The characters of Arnaud and Maria could use some fleshing out, and the second act isn't nearly as strong as the first -- the exception being the titular "Days Like Today." The song reminds us that it's not the perfect days that give our lives meaning; rather, it's the ordinary days spent with the imperfect people we love.
"Days Like Today"★ ★ ★
Location: Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe, (847) 242-6000 or writerstheatre.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday (also select 2 p.m. matinees); 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 6 p.m. Sunday; through July 13
Running time: About two hours, with intermission
Parking: Street parking nearby
Rating: For adults; includes strong language, sexual situations