Auditioning to be a turtle: Damon Daunno (front) and music director Zak Sandler (back) in Fly By Night. All photos by Karen Almond.
Fly By Night is a musical set during a power failure. It’s currently presented by the Dallas Theater Center, and in his review, KERA’s Jerome Weeks says Fly By Night is different from other Theater Center musicals. For one thing, it’s small. For another, it’s quirky.
- Dallas Morning News review (pay wall)
- TheaterJones review
- Star-Telegram review
- Culture Map review
- The Column review
- Front Row review
- KERA radio review:
- Expanded online review:
Imagine a musical that has a magical, omniscient narrator. It’s an old device — recall the stage manager in Our Town. The guy sets scenes and explains everything to us — like, when Asa Somers, as the narrator in Fly By Night, informs us at the start of the second act: “What you’ve just seen is the first part. This is the next part . . . the, ah, second part.”
And imagine this musical has characters such as Daphne (Whitney Bashor), yet another hopeful young woman who’s gonna make it big on Broadway. She and Harold (Damon Daunno), her hapless boyfriend, meet cute. Their hands touch in the sandwich shop where Harold works for the grumpy owner, Crabble (Michael McCormick). They exchange a glance. “You’re cute,” Daphne says and informs the clueless Harold, “My phone number is on the back of that headshot.”
“Oh,” says Harold, surprised. “Can I … call it?”
“Oh, for god’s,” barks Crabble, unable even to get the whole phrase out.
And this musical also has characters like Harold’s dad, Mr. McClam. He’s an elderly widower who mourns his dead wife by singing from La Traviata. As the narrator explains, “That’s how he gets by, drowning out his sadness with a song.”
Really, so that’s why he does it? Wouldn’t have caught that. So does all this sound a little too cute, too pat, too sentimental? That’s because it is. Fly By Night, the new musical at the Dallas Theater Center, was co-written by Kim Rosenstock, who writes for the FOX TV sitcom, New Girl. Which reminds me: Fly By Night also has the arch, self-congratulatory cleverness of recent sitcoms like New Girl.
And yet – dang if the sweet little thing works. And works well. Fly By Night is the funniest, most touching and ingenious new musical the Theater Center has done – certainly ever since artistic director Kevin Moriarty started us on a steady diet of musicals and new musicals with a side order of more musicals
When you have a groan-inducing cliché like a wannabe Broadway star, you have to do something different. Even on Glee, they’re a joke. What Rosenstock and co-creators Will Connolly and Michael Mitnick do is hold off both the sentimentality and the cute humor in a kind of creative tension. They do this by fracturing the storyline and re-assembling it in a very sophisticated fashion.
True, we get lots of quick-cut scenes, as if the show were designed by and for millennials who find anything longer than a Twitter feed taxing to follow. But the quick scenes delay and cut off the more obvious emotional responses by switching sideways to a different scene in a different emotional key. Plus, many of the minor characters do the unexpected: Daphne’s mom, for instance, is actually looking forward to her daughter(s) getting out of the house and heading off to New York. Bye! Don’t come back!
The simplest way to grasp what the creators do is to consider the layout of Act 1, which is built around a single song. Fly By Night is set in New York in 1965. Harold wants to be a musician. And he auditions at a nightclub with what sounds like a goofy, environmental-protest folk song about the plight of baby sea turtles. Once born, the little turtles head the wrong way, distracted by freeway lights along the beach. “I just don’t know what to do,” Harold sings — he’d be wringing his hands, if he weren’t playing the guitar — “maybe I’m a turtle, too.”
But then the narrator flashes us back and we learn about how Harold met Daphne, about Harold’s dad and his coping with his wife’s death and about Miriam, Daphne’s more level-headed sister. In New York, Miriam develops into the major plot complication: She and Harold also fall in love.
Co-composer Will Connolly is adept at indie rock and imitating early ’60s rock and roll, among other styles. But what he really does — like the show itself – is take bits and pieces and build on them, transforming them. So at the end of Act 1, when we get back to that nightclub and Harold’s audition, we now understand his song as a cry of anguish directed at Miriam. Harold is completely conflicted over the two women in his life and wants Miriam to know how he feels. “What do I do?” Daunno wails impressively, “what do I do??”
To call Fly By Night a new musical is a misnomer. It started four years ago at Yale Drama School, got workshopped at Northwestern and staged in California. It even won some Bay Area critics’ nominations. So it’s no surprise it’s already smart and polished — although it’s still a little long and some of the contrivances (gypsy psychic?) used to bring the scattered characters back together and resolve things in Act 2 are a little too cutesy-obvious. And I don’t even agree with Fly By Night‘s larger, universal point about fate because I don’t really believe in fate, which only adds to my reservations about the use of that ‘gypsy psychic.’
Still, the show is unafraid of real human loss, which — even these days or perhaps especially these days — is somewhat amazing in a musical comedy. And thanks to the creators and director Bill Fennelly, the show is beautifully thought-out in many of its details (which is why my quibbles remain quibbles). Consider the dancing and the set design. Joel Ferrell did the choreography, so there had to be some, but I can barely remember any. The real choreography here is what’s done by Dane Laffrey’s set. It’s just a functional black wall. And that makes sense because all the characters end up stumbling around in the darkness of the Great New York City Power Failure of 1965. But the set’s also got doors and staircases and a studio for the onstage band, plus slide-y things that help the scenes pop in and zip out in split-second fashion, just like the storyline does, and all this sliding and popping and stair-climbing provide the kind of physical energy that dancing often lends musicals.
Plus, in the darkness of the power failure, all the evening stars come out. The set, conveniently, is like a little cosmos, in which our characters are searching around, trying to find love and purpose and, not coincidentally, each other. As the narrator himself might over- explain, it’s a metaphor.
So what I meant to say is that Fly By Night is really not ‘new’ so much as it’s ‘pre-New York.’ It’s nice that along the way to New York — as has become the custom at the Theater Center with these imported productions– a few local actors got some work in supporting roles. Nothing against the imported cast — they’re terrific, especially Asa Somers as the hardworking, costume-changing narrator and Kristin Stokes with her big-hearted voice as Miriam. The emotional directness Stokes brings to a song cuts against the hip whimsy this show can fall into.
But happily, in the end, it’s Fort Worth’s David Coffee as Harold’s dad who gets the show’s knock-down, poignant number everyone will remember. Score one for the home team.
At any rate, when Fly By Night finally does get to New York, I hope it goes off-Broadway and has a happy, comfortable run. Broadway tends to take shows, tart them up, kitsch them up and then kill them quickly. Or kill them slowly, over the course of a long run. And Fly By Night is small, heartfelt, off-beat and utterly charming.
It deserves something better than a slow death. Or a fly-by-night success.
Whtiney Bashor as Daphne and Damon Daunno as Harold in Fly By Night
*Nitpicky, Carl Sagan-ish point which is why it’s down here because, mostly, no one will care.
Miriam loves astronomy, which we learn when she’s in South Dakota. It’s another one of those apt little details that the show’s creators cleverly work in because, later during the blackout, she gets to see the stars that she’s missed ever since moving to New York. But when we first learn about her love of astronomy, Miriam reads from a book on the topic. And what she reads is a variation of Carl Sagan’s famous statement that we are all “star stuff.” The molecules within us originated in stars billions of years ago at the very start of everything. It’s perhaps the show’s first iteration of what will become one of its themes, that we are all connected.
But the line Miriam reads describes us as coming from a dying star that “exploded out into the atmosphere.” An atmosphere is the gaseous covering around a planet. I may be wrong, but I suspect there were no atmospheres at the time; no planets had been formed. Besides, a star doesn’t ‘explode out into the atmosphere’ — that implies the star is somehow inside the atmosphere to begin with.
A suggestion: “Exploded out into the cosmos” would be better. Or simply, “exploded.”
All right, all right. I said it was nitpicky. But Carl would understand. Besides, I like Fly By Night. I want it to be better.