By Barry Reszel
Today is the operative word in Writers Theatre’s world premiere of the modern relationship musical, Days Like Today.
Based on the plays of Charles L. Mee, Laura Eason’s book, punctuated by Alan Schmuckler’s poignant lyrics and memorable song, could well be called, Today’s Normal.
Which is to say, if this generation’s claim to fame is (to one’s delight, another’s chagrin and a third’s skepticism) acceptance of human differences and expressions of love via relationships frowned upon in days of yore, then Days Like Today may become the standard-bearing musical of these times.
Because wrapped around the melancholy of jilted bride Tessa over the course of the year following her aborted wedding, Days is a fascinating, complicated relationship tale. As Tessa, played by the lovely and talented Emily Berman, works through her sadness and anger at the family beach house by delving into her work as a coffee table book editor and translator, the audience is given insight into the folks from whom she came.
And they are as modern as Modern Family.
Still married to one another, though each possessing a new male lover, Tessa’s parents Frank (Jonathan Weir) and Maria (Susie McMonagle) work more to keep their mid-20s daughter’s difficulties from getting it the way of their lives instead of showing any true parental concern.
The story unfolds through the not completely convincing chance meetings among the parents and their significant others throughout the year at the beach house, where Tessa stays holed up working through her young adult disappointments. Stephen Schnellhardt shines as Frank’s much younger gay lover Edmund. Jeff Parker is convincing as Maria’s annoyingly creepy arm candy, Francois.
Most interesting is Will Mobley’s pizza delivery man with the classics PhD, James. Yes, it’s contrived that Frank happens to be a university classics department head. But James’ honest love of Tessa at first sight combined with Mobley’s superb portrayal combining soft intellectual with smitten suitor keeps a light at the end of the tunnel for both the young heroine and her appreciative audience.
Director Michael Halberstam expertly leads this talented cast through the series of complex, modern issues, made believable, interesting and emotional by Schmuckler’s fabulous songbook.
This next-Jason Robert Brown not only writes terrific melodies, his lyrics both critically advance the plot while telling stories in and of themselves. In particular, “Warm Autumn Night,” “Making it Up as We Go,” “He Was Very Kind to Me,” and the title song are highlights. More about Northwestern University graduate Schmuckler may be read here.
Vocally on opening night, the men shined, with Weir’s fabulous voice particularly evidenced. Berman hit her vocal stride in the second act. Unfortunately, the character of Maria is just not a showcase for the uber-talented McMonagle, a virtual Jeff-nomination lock for her work in Drury Lane’s Next to Normal (go figure) last summer.
Chicagoland musical theatre audiences need to seize the terrific opportunity Days Like Today offers in this last production at Writers’ intimate Tudor Court setting. Because this is a full-fledged ground floor tour and insight into a piece of modern architecture that, with some final design changes, has the chance to become a landmark.
Performances for Days Like Today at Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe, are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30 pm, Thursdays and Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 4 pm and 8 pm and Sundays at 2 pm and 6 pm, through July 27. Ticket prices range from $35 to $75 and are available by calling 847-242-600, online at www.writerstheatre.org or in person at the box office, 321 Park Ave., Glencoe.
An edited version of this review was first published at makeitbetter.net.