Our narrator says from the start that it is hard to know where to begin. To begin at the true, cosmic beginning is impossible. And where to begin with the Dallas Theater Center’s new musical, a veritable love song to oft-despaired, so-called millennials and a paean to the generations, people, and stories past? For all the darkness both literal and figurative inherent to Fly by Night, an ambitious work that examines high-minded ideas of fate, prophecy, and connectedness, there’s something almost blindingly brilliant about it. Catchy hooks from seemingly silly songs linger like the retinal flare from a single direct look at the sun; even the sweetest, smartest, funniest jokes can’t blot out the impending black to come.
It is, after all a show that hinges on the real-life power outage on November 9, 1965 that affected six states and 30 million people. Even our happiest moments can’t keep the darkness at bay, but there is a crack in everything that lets the light in. Leonard Cohen taught us that. But the characters believe it bone deep, even if they don’t know it. And a lot can happen when you start dancing on those fault lines.
Fly by Night concerns two young women—sisters, as opposite as day and night—and a boy. A love triangle, and that’s no spoiler. You know it right away, but because the musical weaves so deftly back and forth in time, you just don’t know precisely how it will come about. Their story takes place during one very specific year—1964-1965—when they move from South Dakota to New York City. Daphne (Whitney Bashor), a charmingly self-centered actress, has been the toast of her small town theater productions and sees no reason it shouldn’t be any different on Broadway. Her sister, Miriam (Kristin Stokes), has smaller ambitions and no real desire to move to the big city. She’s a waitress because she genuinely enjoys it, and she loves gazing up at the cosmos (her airy, poignant song about trusting the stars is a melodic refrain that repeats throughout the musical). She is sorely disappointed when she realizes that view from her city fire escape doesn’t match the view back home.
Daphne meets Harold McClam (Damon Daunno, a dead ringer for Neon Indian frontman Alan Palomo), an aspiring musician and full-time sandwich maker at a deli owned by the appropriately named Crabble (Michael McCormick), and they fall in love. Crabble is a crank who despairs Harold’s lack of interest in his crummy job and longs for his glory days during World War II. Meanwhile, Harold and his father, Mr. McClam (David Coffee), are suffering from the recent loss of Harold’s mother. Like Miriam, all of these characters have stories and refrains that reoccur again and again. These small vignettes help us feel who these people are, they make us laugh, and they pull at the heart.
When Daphne is cast as the lead in a new play by Joey Storms (Alex Organ), a struggling writer with a family pedigree, her easy romance with Harold (“You play, and I’ll sing!”) becomes fraught. But Harold proposes, and now it’s time to meet Miriam. Meanwhile, Miriam has been practically stalked by a gypsy lady (play by our narrator, Asa Somers, who is wonderful as our spirit guide and as every other role he steps into and out of at the drop of a hat—or head scarf, as the case may be) who desperately wants to tell Miriam her fate. As soon as Miriam tumbles to precisely what—or who—that is, she makes every attempt to hide from it. But again: cracks, fault lines.
Kim Rosenstock conceived Fly by Night while the playwright (also a writer for Fox’s comedy New Girl) was still attending the Yale School of Drama, where she and her co-writers Will Connolly and Michael Mitnick met. The musical, which shares more than a few themes with her play Tigers Be Still that DTC produced last season, was first presented by the Yale Summer Cabaret, and originally produced by TheatreWorks in California. Director Bill Fennelly and the actress Kristin Stokes, who plays Miriam, followed the production to Dallas, where it finds a welcome, engaging home on the stage of the Kalita Humphreys Theater.
Scenic design by Dane Laffrey enhances the theatrical magic of a script that features both a singing narrator in the tradition of musicals such as Assasins, Evita, and Into the Woods and a rock band (Austin’s Foe Destroyer, doing incredible work). Laffrey’s set affords you a window into what seems more like an underground club jam session than an orchestrated performance; the cigarettes dangling out of the musician’s mouths was an especially nice touch.
If there’s a quibble with the music, it’s with some of the melodies. The musical’s pop punk sound, a mix of radio hits and Green Day that’s so familiar and fun to us now just didn’t exist. Coffee’s voice, as Mr. McClam, gave us a bit of gravel, which helped temper some of the more saccharine pop elements and gave us a gorgeous, tear-jerking number in the second act. But darn it if you don’t find yourself humming “la da da da da da da” during intermission.
It’s not a perfect whole, yet. It’s long, sure, and loses some steam in the second act as the overlapping plots begin to truly collide. There’s a tendency to beat us over the head with some of the more poetic notions, and occasionally the quirky rhetoric grates. At times, our veteran actors, McCormick and Coffee, noticeably out-perform their younger cohorts (and that’s not necessarily a bad thing). Alex Organ is an audience favorite who looks great in a mink coat but gets short-changed by his character, Joey Storms, the musical’s one truly underdeveloped, overly convenient role. It’s too bad, because Storms hinges a pivotal scene, and the dime turn feels just a tad too abrupt.
But there’s not only beauty in perfection; there’s loveliness in what’s real, and flawed. Believe in the order of the universe, or not. Risk yourself for something greater, or don’t. As it stands, this new musical will make you want more of everything—more heart, more laughter, more happiness, and it will surround you with a yawning dark and still remind you of the light. Trust that it can only get brighter from here.
Photo by Karen Almond, courtesy of the Dallas Theater Center.