Writers Theatre. Music and lyrics by Alan Schmuckler. Book by Laura Eason. Directed by Michael Halberstam. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs; one intermission.
Theater review by Kris Vire
This winsome new musical from composer Alan Schmuckler and book writer Laura Eason takes inspiration from Charles L. Mee’s 2000 play Summertime. It also derives its title from Mee’s work: “these days like today / where nothing special happens to you / but you have been with me,” one character says to another in Mee’s collection of musings on Modern Love; a stage direction indicates she says this while weeping.
It’s one of the more seemingly heartfelt sentiments in Summertime, in which a clutch of characters representing every sexual orientation and proclivity descends on Martha’s Vineyard and proceeds to emote without getting too emotional. (A Chicago staging was mounted by Lookingglass in 2002.)
Schmuckler and Eason initially set out to write a straight musical adaptation of Mee’s play, but eventually shifted to borrowing the setting and some character relationships and situations from Summertime and a couple of Mee’s other plays (he encourages this re-use of his work) for a mostly new story.
And happily, Days Like Today mostly does away with the self-satisfied proclamations of the original (which, like much of Mee’s work, borrows a good bit from the ancient Greeks). The musical has its sharp edges but adds a hopeful, uncynical romanticism that’s evident in what Eason tacks on to the near-verbatim passage from which the title’s drawn, redrawn as full of hope: “Maybe what we remember when we die is days like today, where nothing special happens, but you have been with me, and I have been with you, and that’s enough.”
The piece opens on the wedding day of Tessa (Emily Berman, a newcomer with a remarkable presence and earthy, penetrative voice) and Arnaud (Jarrod Zimmerman). Tessa’s far-from-traditional parents Frank (Jonathan Weir) and Maria (Susie McMonagle) are in attendance with their respective lovers, Edmund (Stephen Schellhardt) and Francois (Jeff Parker); Edmund is a former student of classics prof Frank, while Francois is Tessa’s former dance teacher.
Free spirit Maria wants to talk her daughter out of the wedding, but there’s no need—the groom has cold feet. But as Tessa tries to recover by digging into her work—as a translator of Romance languages, working on a coffee-table book of photos and quotes about love—a new suitor (the cutely stammering Will Mobley) shows up unbidden at her door.
Eason’s scene dialogue retains a bit of the forced quality of Mee’s script, and some of what Schmuckler borrows from the source comes across as clunky as well; “Making It Up As We Go,” a sweet song about the in-flux state of gay relationships in America that reappears several times, unfortunately and awkwardly uses the phrase “in America” as a refrain in what seems like a nod to a passage from Summertime.
Still, Schmuckler’s score is on the whole an enticing blend of styles (orchestrated by Schmuckler and musical director Doug Peck to include as much acoustic guitar as bowed strings) that embraces multiperspectival musical storytelling. The Act I closer “Welcome to My House,” which culminates in the entire cast lending its voices to amplifying Tessa’s raging self-doubts, is the kind of number to make you sit up and take notice. And Schmuckler and Eason, along with director Michael Halberstam and the impressively stacked cast, seem less interested in Mee-esque satirizing of the varieties of love in the modern world than in celebrating them.