“For beautiful to happen, the beautiful has got to be seen.”
—from the lyric to “Beautiful” in Ordinary Days
Author and composer Adam Gwon’s lyricism and nostalgic, smart melodies are enough to pull you into the storytelling of Ordinary Days. At NOVA Nightsky Theater in Falls Church, focusing on the story and score allows for a beautiful presentation of this gem of a musical about four New Yorkers finding connection. Staged with few bells and whistles at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, with a colorful surprise toward the end, it gives you all the feels.
The story opens with Warren (AJ Sultan), a professional cat sitter for an artist who is in jail, trying to share flyers of the artist’s work with NYC passersby. We then meet Deb (Kathleen Jo Emidio), a stressed-out graduate student working on her thesis about Virginia Woolf, who really doesn’t wanna be here. Meanwhile, an effervescent Jason (Jacob Lefler) and a careful Claire (Jessi Shull) are a couple moving in together yet experiencing growing pains. Everything culminates in one day at the New York Met: where Warren is to meet Deb to return her lost notebook, and which has been on Claire and Jason’s bucket list of NYC places to visit.
It’s a new endeavor for NOVA Nightsky Theater, as their first musical directed by heart and spirit by Sabrina McAllister. Ordinary Days is almost entirely sung-through, with dialogue in the middle of songs but never any book scenes. This structure allows for strong pacing, thanks to the fast transitions. There’s a clear focus on music, with music director Josh Cleveland positioned upstage center right in the action and at times even participating, as the barista in “Big Picture” and other moments. He plays Gwon’s difficult score with dexterity and visible joy.
Each performer fills up the space, with a presentation that puts the focus on the people. They work with a pipe and drape where Warren hangs up flyers with the show’s most impactful lyrics, black studio theater-style boxes that they arrange and stand on to signify apartments and buildings, and props that include New York Met maps and Deb’s ill-fated notebook. Aligning with Deb’s line in “Calm” about her black-and-white poster that says “My Manhattan,” everyone wears black, white, or grey, with accents of red as they find more connection.
As Warren, AJ Sultan welcomes you in with bright eyes and soft comedic timing, with an ease about his presence despite the character being decidedly “awkward.” His scene-setting, audience-interaction–filled opener “One by One by One” and his short but sweet “Life Story” showcase his understanding of the score’s conversational feel and musicality, in both his lower register and his higher tenor notes. He’s a joy to follow, as he connects more with Deb.
Kathleen Jo DiEmidio gives an entertaining performance as a bubbly, perpetually stressed-out Deb. She conveys the stress in a way that’s not overwhelming, by “laughing until she’s crying” and having the ability to say “Well, anyway” and move on. Her renditions of “Don’t Wanna Be Here” and “Calm,” two signature moments of Deb’s fast-paced, chatterbox nature and search to find what makes the most sense for her life, bring down the house. Her voice resonates best in her mix. She makes bold choices, but the most powerful moments are when she lets herself be quieter, like the penultimate verse in “Calm.”
If Warren and Deb are the spirit driving this story, Jason and Claire are the heart of it. Jacob Lefler is a sweet Jason, with a smile that exudes constant hope. This makes his solo after the Met, “Favorite Places,” stand out. It’s one of the few moments of his sadness underneath that optimism — as he drops his guard, doesn’t smile whatsoever, and reveals that he’s struggling to find his place with Claire.
The most heart-wrenching moment of the show comes from Jessi Shull as Claire. If you know Ordinary Days, you likely know “I’ll Be Here.” Seeing it in context was beautiful. Shull gets lost in her memories, reminiscing and grieving her late husband who passed away during 9/11, while also fighting with her current feelings of allowing herself to find love again. She has a vulnerable vibrato, full soprano, and magic in allowing herself to sit with these emotions. Her ability to deliver the song to the audience before getting up the courage to sing to Jason was powerful.
There’s much to love about Ordinary Days, from the little detailed moments of complexity that you’re sure to find in each performer, to the moments where they all come together as a full ensemble. If you want to see some wonderful musical storytelling, go see Ordinary Days before it closes next weekend.
Running Time: One hour 15 minutes, with no intermission.
Ordinary Days plays January 26 through 28, 2023, presented by NOVA Nightsky Theater performing at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, 3022 Woodlawn Ave, Falls Church, VA. Tickets are $25 online and $30 at the door.
The digital playbill for Ordinary Days is available here.
COVID Safety: Face masks are welcome but not required.
A musical by Adam Gwon
Directed by Sabrina McCallister
Musical direction by Josh Cleveland
Warren: AJ Sultan
Deb: Kathleen Jo DiEmidio
Claire: Jessi Shull
Jason: Jake Lefler
Stage Manager: Ramah Johnson
Associate Producer: Jessi Shull
Design & Technical Director: Adam Ressa
Artistic Director: Ward Kay
Producing Director: Jaclyn Robertson