Witty, thoughtful "The Usual" staged in Williamston, Michigan
In tiny Williamston, Michigan, a charming town just outside of Lansing, there is a wonderful little theater. I was completely unaware of this fact until my friend, writer Alan Gordon, informed me that his musical, The Usual, was being performed there. In the mystery community, Alan is known for his whip smart and dryly humorous Jester novels, set in the 12th century. When he told me about the musical I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, though I knew that musical theater was and is a passion for him.
The theater - as I mentioned - is tiny, but it was filled by Alan’s play, with a cast of only three players. The basic story is a fairly simple one: a guy, Kip, comes into a bar, he’s lonely, and his small dream is to have the bartender call him by name and remember what his “usual” is. His dreams are somewhat exceeded by the charms of the bartender, Sam, and by a fellow customer, Valerie, who is working her way through the minefield of internet dating.
While he and the bartender agree that his “usual” will be whatever she decides it might be on any given day, Kip and Valerie form a tenuous bond, and begin to meet regularly to discuss her bad dates. A simple, if clever, set up with a good hook. What makes it special is the wit and thought that went into the songs, the script, and the staging.
Kip and Valerie are very specific people, they aren’t generic. They have layers to them, some of them revealed through songs, some through dialogue. Kip is a software geek who embraces his geekdom - he calls himself “King of the Nerds” and indeed, he’s endearingly shlubby, in khakis and a saggy blazer, at one point sporting an Atari t-shirt. Valerie is oddly and endearingly vulnerable, holding Kip at arm’s length in some ways.
Talking with Alan after the show he said the idea came from his thought that technology gets between people. Kip is trying to reach out by leaving the safety of his computer nest and facebook familiars to enter a real bar, filled with real people. It’s a small step, but it’s a step. Valerie is still holding the world at bay by dating sort of by proxy. The most human interaction for her, it seems, is dissecting her dates afterwards with Kip.
Sam is a great anchor and the actress who plays her (Leslie Hull) has a terrific voice. While Kip’s (Joseph Zettelmaier) and Valerie’s (Emily Sutton-Smith) voices are fine, what’s great about them is their charming vulnerability on stage. Seeing this as a live performance draws you into their humanity, a point the play is trying to make.
There are fourteen songs, all of which advance the plot, and some of which are witty standouts. I especially liked “Switzerland”, where Sam declares the bar a neutral zone, where no one hits on anyone else. “Too Old For Toys” is a fun, naughty girl romp (see it for yourself) and the best, “Valerie the Valkyrie” and “The Wizard’s Map” are saved for after the intermission.
The staging is very inventive, with the tiny space being used in all kinds of imaginative ways. The best bit is the bit that goes with “Valerie the Valkyrie” and “The Wizard’s Map” as a very early iteration of a Zelda type video game plays out on top of the bar behind Valerie as she is absorbed in her computer screen.
This is a romantic comedy, so the ending isn’t a surprise, but it’s a sweet, thoughtful look at how real friendship can turn to love when the timing is right. The actors and the director did a wonderful job interpreting the words and songs and bringing them to life, and looking around the theater at the end of the show I saw many happy and enraptured faces on other audience members. This is a great night out.
Robin Agnew is the co-owner of Aunt Agatha's Books in Ann Arbor. "The Usual" runs through April 22, details at www.williamstontheater.org.