Writers Theatre’s DAYS LIKE TODAY Is A Gorgeous Production In Need Of More Development

14109473786_17f4194eefRecommended: Theatre in Chicago Review Round-Up

Reviewed by: James Murray

Writers Theatre’s current offering, the World premiere of Alan Schmuckler and Laura Eason’s new musical, “Days Like Today” is a pastel-water-color-musical- landscape which meanders in and out of the dialogue in an attempt to make it appear more “real” than traditional musical theatre where people break out into song.

 It does not follow traditional musical theatre composition which, much of the time, I find to its detriment as much of the music is unmemorable, (with the exception of the Prologue, “I Need Someone To Love” and” Making it Up as We Go”).

For those not familiar with Schmuckler’s work Writer’s Theatre premiered another of his works The Minister’s Wife, a “musical” adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Candida which had a successful run in Chicago and at Lincoln Center in New York.

I will admit that his musical score for Days Like Today has some gorgeous melodies that I found lacking in his previous work.  But it needs more development.  During intermission I overheard several of the audience members remarking that they could not figure out what was going on or where the show was leading them.

Under Michael Halberstam’s masterful direction Days Like Today is a Sondheimesque inspired sketch about 6 couples and the change/deterioration/rebuilding of their love relationships that occur over 1 full year.  Broken down into 4 Seasons and 2 hours it begins with the main character Tessa (played by the talented but miscast Emily Berman) who has vowed that, after being jilted at the alter on the day of her wedding, that she is through with love.  Her mother Maria (played by the magnificent Susie McGonagle) and father Frank (the talented Jonathan Weir) although still married have lovers.  Maria is having an affair with Tessa’s ex-teacher Francios (the sexy Richard Gere like Jeff Parker) while Frank is involved with Edmund (Stephen Schellhart in one of the strongest performances).

A Pizza delivery Boy James (played by a charming and charismatic Will Mobley) spots Tessa right after her fiancée Arnaud (the wonderful Jarod Zimmerman) has told her he cannot go through with the marriage.  He is instantly in love with her and she through with love and men forever, rebuffs him.  The remainder of the plot is the typical one about how people hurt and disappoint one another, break up and get back together.

Although Emily Berman is a strong performer, I found it difficult to believe what all of the fuss over her Tessa was about.  This could be a fault of the book which does not go very far in developing her character.  Most of the time she is tearing up, rejecting her stalker boyfriend or whining about how difficult it is to find love in today’s world.  I never found anything special or dynamic about her (or any of the characters) that made me care about her dilemma.

I do feel that the relationship with Edmund and Frank is probably the strongest and has the most depth of all of the relationships.  But even this wears thin in the second act.

My main issue with this new musical is that I left the theatre not caring and wondering why all of the talent, expense and time went into creating it.  There is nothing stage-worthy or redeeming about any of these characters and this is where I fault the thin book by Laura Eason and the interrupting meandering, repetitive musical score of Alan Schmuckler where all of the characters sing the same melodies over and over without any musical character delineation at all.  We never get to know them and are kept at a distance.

I find this type of breaking all of the rules of musical theatre construction to be distracting and the reason for high failure rate of many of the modern musicals coming out of New York.   This is why Rogers and Hammerstein still pack huge houses.  People are moved, entertained and leave the theatre humming the music.

The actors are all top-notch and deliver exactly what is expected of them with great skill.  The issue at hand here is we the audience, are never able to connect with the characters or learn much about them.  Eventually I got turned off by all of the repetitive, whining woe-is-me-it is so hard to find love dialogue.

If the piece had more depth, variety of theme and stronger character development but less musical intrusion it would change the play structure dramatically and correct some of the issues I mention.   Schmuckler’s musical style interferes and distances the audience from becoming engaged in the work (which is entirely opposite to Writer’s Theatre’s mantra).  We sit back, listen, watch and are mentally engaged but left emotionally cold.  For those familiar with Sondheim this can be one of the complaints about his work.

Even though I may at times be disappointed in the selection of the piece I am never disappointed in the production qualities of Writers Theatre; they are Broadway quality and should be the beacon for other theatre companies to follow.  The have consistently earned their label as one of the best national theatres.14109483466_4cfc6f42e3

The scenic design by Scott Bradley captures the look and feel of Martha’s Vineyard while providing great indoor/outdoor playing areas for the actors.

Jesse Klug’s lighting design is also stellar and mirrors the musical mood of the play, transporting us into different seasons.

If I have one design complaint it is with the props.  Everything is realistic with the exception of an obviously fake red rose that is brought on in the second act.  The creators destroy the reality of the world they have worked so diligently to create.  And since at Writer’s Theatre everything is so close this is an unfortunate oversight with the design and easily corrected.

I know it is hip today to break the rules with musical theatrical structure but in this instance I think the creators would benefit by following them.  After all the greatly crafted musicals with strong books, great stories, characters that capture our imaginations and musical lyricism still draw big audiences and are being constantly revived.  That should be a strong message for creators of new works.

Days Like Today runs through July 13, 2015 at Writers Theatre at 325 Tudor Court in Glencoe, Illinois.  Tickets are $35-$75.