Review: “Days Like Today”

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Where: Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe
When: through July 13
Tickets: $35-$75
Phone: 847-242-6000

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

Woe to anyone who tries to write a sincere musical about love these days. The topic has been so overworked in every medium that it’s almost impossible to find anything new to say, much less a way to say it that doesn’t sound trite.

Yet that’s just what composer/lyricist Alan Schmuckler and playwright Laura Eason have attempted to do with “Days Like Today,” which is having a generally well-acted world premiere as the second musical ever commissioned by Writers Theatre. Paired for the project by artistic director Michael Halberstam, Schmuckler and Eason initially set out to adapt and musicalize Charles L. Mee’s “Summertime” but soon found themselves developing an original piece inspired by Mee’s plays.

The result, with scenes and songs divided among the four seasons, is a schematic exploration of various kinds of love that betrays a sitcom sensibility mitigated by a healthy dose of humor and an occasional insight. Naturally, the ideals of romantic love come crashing up against reality, but the outcome is surprisingly sweet and uplifting.

At the center is Tessa (Emily Berman), who’s a few years out of college and working on a book of photographs. We first see her at the “lovely but aging vacation home at a place very much like Martha’s Vineyard” right before her marriage to the “practical” Arnaud (Jarrod Zimmerman). We also meet her parents, classics professor Frank (Jonathan Weir) and outspoken Maria (Susie McMonagle), each of whom has brought along a lover. Frank is in a serious relationship with Edmund (Stephen Schellhandt), who wants to take it to the next level and get married, while Maria is having an ongoing affair based mostly on sex with Francois (Jeff Parker), a womanizing dance teacher who’s happy to keep it that way.

Act 1 opens in fall with Tessa singing about how perfect weddings are and everybody getting ready, though Maria tells her daughter she can still call it off. We know the young woman is headed for … well, a fall … even before Arnaud shows up unexpectedly and, professing how much he loves her, calls the nuptials off. Tessa goes into a predictable emotional tailspin, disappearing all night, and her frantically worried parents make it abundantly clear to their respective paramours that their daughter comes first, something that disturbs Edmund, who’s meeting the family for the first time, more than it does Francois, who isn’t.

This dynamic repeats, with slight variations, throughout the other seasons. When Tessa shows up the next morning, she asks if she can stay at the vacation home a few months until a trip she’s supposed to take to Rome (but cancels), so when Frank-Edmund and Maria-Francois arrive for weekend getaways the same weekend, they not only unexpectedly find her, they also confront each other. And so it goes with some sort of crisis disrupting each unintentional or intentional get together: Frank and Maria profess how much they love each other despite the fact that he’s gay, Edmund deals with this and the age difference between him and Frank, and Tessa gradually emerges from her funk, so that when Arnaud wants her back, she no longer wants him.

The main relief from this dysfunctional merry-go-round is James (Will Mobley), the pizza delivery guy and Ph.D. who shares a love of the classics with both Tessa and her father. His first appearance is a breath of fresh air, as he uses bringing Tessa a pizza she didn’t order to explain — wittily in song — how he fell in love with her at first sight when she was huddled in a corner of the parlor wearing a coat on a warm autumn night, so he spent seven-and-a-half hours going door to door trying to find her. Flabbergasted and dismayed, she rejects him in no uncertain terms — ”Where There Was Bone,” now there is ice, she sings — and later refers to him as her “stalker.”

But ice melts and, after James visits Frank in the hospital, gets an appointment in his classics department, and is invited to Tessa’s birthday party, there’s not the slightest doubt that true love will triumph in the end — at least for now.

While the book is pretty formulaic — though minority characters are missing from the equation — much of Schmuckler’s music soars. The comic songs fare best, but the tribute to “Tuscany” is lovely, and a couple of the angry numbers pack a punch. On the other hand, some of the lyrics are banal, and too many forced rhymes draw attention to themselves. But when push comes to shove — and there’s a lot of push and shove or push and pull — the songs carry most of the weight of the characters’ feelings, which probably is as it should be in a musical.

Several improvements would be relatively easy to make. Arnaud needs to be more than a bland jerk, so the stakes are higher and we feel Tessa’s loss. Tessa is in sulky mode too much of the evening, wallowing in self pity and blaming her overbearing parents so much that we’re inclined to agree with Maria, who tells her to suck it up and get on with her life. Some of the repetitive dialogue should be cut. And everyone should stop putting their hands on their hearts every time they sing about love; it’s ridiculous and looks like they’re about to launch into the Pledge of Allegiance.

Scott Bradley’s scenic design also needs work. It has so many levels and steps that it’s difficult for the actors to navigate around it or execute Tommy Rapley’s limited choreography. The multi-patterned carpet patches covering some areas “outdoors” may have meaning to someone, but they’re visually distracting and a menace to performers, especially women in heels.

On the bright side, Doug Peck’s musical direction is first rate, the small orchestra (upstage behind the set) is in fine form and although the actors are wearing mics, which shouldn’t be necessary in such a small house, the sound is in balance.

I can’t predict the future for “Days Like Today,” but with the right attention, it should have some tomorrows. The same cannot be said for Writers’ Tudor Court space, however. This is the company’s last production there, after which the building is being torn down to make way for a brand-new theater center. So enjoy the quirky charm while you can.