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A CurtainUp Review
Fly By Night
By Jacob Horn
The theme has been explored many times before, yet there's something special about Fly By Night. Set during the 1965 northeast blackout, it nonetheless feels extremely contemporary.
The comical, non-linear storytelling brings to mind countless comparisons, especially to series like How I Met Your Mother and Arrested Development. But being similar to these shows doesn't detract from the musical's feeling of originality. Well-scored and well-acted to boot, Fly By Night, though bittersweet, makes for an entertaining production and a high note on which to end Playwrights Horizons's latest season.
The musical, smoothly directed by Carolyn Cantor, centers on Harold (Adam Chanler-Berat), a sandwich maker who finds himself romantically caught between two sisters, Daphne (Patti Murin) and Miriam (Allison Case). He meets Daphne, an actress newly relocated to New York from South Dakota, as she struggles to find her big break. A creative type himself — his mother has recently passed away and he is learning to play her old guitar — Harold quickly falls for her, but soon a chance encounter with Miriam, a quiet astronomy nerd who only came to New York to cheer on her sister, proves consequential.
Their amorous entanglements are the major focus, but a rich cast of supporting characters add other dimensions to the story. Harold's father, Mr. McClam (Peter Friedman), struggles with the loss of his wife and his son's growing distance. Crabble (Michael McCormick), who owns the store where Harold works, feels like his life has reached a dead end. The playwright who finally sees Daphne's potential, Joey Storms (Bryce Ryness), is racked with his own crisis of confidence. And the Narrator (Henry Stram) is always on hand to fill in missing details or roles.
While the characters don't share the stage equally, the show has the feeling of an ensemble production, in part because of fairly quick pacing and careful writing that economically rotates through these plotlines. The performers consistently have great chemistry, even when the characters don't. Friedman establishes a particularly strong presence with little actual stage time. Conversely, Stram's Narrator is omni-present, yet restrained; the actor proves his versatility in the range of minor roles he takes on at the drop of the hat.
Case, Chanler-Berat, and Murin deserve praise for their appealing portrayals of characters that feel genuine and real — or at least as close to "real" as possible in a genre where characters spontaneously break out into song. In fact, Fly By Night doesn't take the musicality of a musical for granted, but embraces it in the development of its characters (complementing it with Sam Pinkleton's naturalistic choreography that feels more like an extension of the staging).
Harold carries his mother's guitar with him everywhere, even when he only knows how to play one chord, trying to piece together a song. Daphne sings because she's a performer, whether or not anyone will cast her. Even Mr. McClam carries around a record player with the La Traviata soundtrack, humming along while remembering his wife's fondness for the opera. As a result, the show's catchy score (which blends rock with a traditional "musical theater"-y sound) feels natural — even necessary.
The centrality of music here is physically underscored by the placement of the band at center stage, with the action taking place around them, making the musicians the show's most elaborate set piece. David Korins's scenic design provides the minimum level of detail necessary to elucidate each setting along with Jeff Croiter's lighting, Paloma Young's costumes, and Ken Travis and Alex Hawthorne's sound design.
This simple, abstracted set can give the musical a dreamlike aura which works well in a show depicting the 1965 blackout, itself a surreal occurrence. In Fly By Night the darkness can be frightening as well as wondrous. Similar contradictions describe the play itself: it's tragic and comic, traditional and novel, and it strikes these balances just right. Fly By Night is about the ambiguous moments where joy and sorrow meet, but it all comes together into a show that's unambiguously enjoyable.