By Bridgette M. Redman
Those things in our life which are the most ordinary and every day are, when we step back to look at them or when we run the risk of losing them, also the most extraordinary. In Scott Burkell and Paul Loesel’s new musical, “The Extraordinary Ordinary,” it is the ordinariness and immeasurable value of friendship that is put to song in a work that is at once as familiar as it is new.
Scott Burkell has become a favorite at Kalamazoo’s Farmers Alley Theatre, and his works fit snugly into the intimate theater. Even the characters seem to fit better in a Michigan urban setting than the Manhattan where the musical claims they live. Granted, they nearly all went to the University of Michigan, but one wonders why they left.
Wherever they live, this group of six friends (seven, if you count the ever-unseen Stu) are several slices of that pie we could dub “ordinary people,” the type of people that you might be or the type of people you might spend your social hours with. They’re certainly the kind of people who are enjoyable to dally with at the theater.
“The Extraordinary Ordinary” has splashes of “Rent” without the tragedy, a dose of “Avenue Q” without the cynicism and a spattering of “Company” without the pretentiousness. The musical follows a year in the life of the friendship of an almost artificial collection of types who have been friends for decades. They are comfortably ensconced in each other’s lives with a history that allows the bonds between them to survive even when stretched.
The circle of friends includes a married couple, Bev (Alison Mahoney) and Zach (David Niles); a gay couple, Sam (Jack Sweeney) and Joey (Nik Spayne); a single woman, Karen (Sandy Swier); and half of a heterosexual couple who have been living together for 10 years without tying the knot, Kate (Amanda Martin). One is a controlling perfectionist, another a flaky optimist, another a stressed-out careerist, another lost in a midlife crisis, another a young innocent and another flamboyantly friendly.
Within the year, all of the relationships are tested in ways both ordinary and extraordinary. The characters are forced to assess their lives, and along the way they treat the audience to a litany of well-written songs, gentle humor and amusing situations.
“The Extraordinary Ordinary” isn’t groundbreaking or new, but it is warm, lovely and a touching dose of entertainment that draws its beauty from what is ordinary. The characters are flawed, likeable and authentic. The actors portraying them bring amazing vocal talent where they alternate with belting solos and perfectly blended ensemble numbers where each voice fully supports the others.
Martin’s Kate is deliciously open and the perfect foil for Zwier’s uptight Karen. The two of them have the perfect friendship, in that their quirks delightfully balance each other. Mahoney’s loneliness is heartbreaking with Bev’s constantly distant husband.
While Niles voice, especially in “I’ll Jump,” is stunning, he seems always disconnected – not just from his wife, but also in the blooming relationship between him and Sam. It’s a tough role, in that he plays someone who is confused about his sexuality and increasingly isolated from his wife, a role that calls for a great deal of disconnection. However, there is too much blankness in his expression and a lack of passion even in those scenes where the tension should be simmering. One gets the impression that nothing could leave Zach unruffled, even a fire would have him languidly sauntering away.
Sweeney carefully balances playing to stereotype and creating a character who is as conflicted about his relationships as Zach and Bev. He allows himself to be surprised by events while keeping up a patter of humor. Spayne plays the role with puppy-dog devotion to Sam, a young interloper who finds it tough to break into this circle of friends.
Burkell and Loesel have composed 20 songs, all of which showcase the talent of the actors and spotlight those important, ordinary moments of our lives. They range from the expository “History of Us” to the heartbreaking “Did I Ever Really Know You,” and the gentle sweetness of “A Sorta Love Song.” They also include the hilarious “Kate’s Dream,” which is as wild as a psychedelic dream with truthful portents of the characters’ struggles.
“The Extraordinary Ordinary” is neither tragedy nor comedy. It is an excellent performance of truthful, gentle commentary on the way we relate to each other and how our relationships endow life with its richness and worth.
‘The Extraordinary Ordinary’
Farmers Alley Theatre, 221 Farmers Alley, Kalamazoo. Thursday-Sunday through Oct. 9. $27-$29. 269-343-2727. http://www.farmersalleytheatre.com