BWW Review: FLY BY NIGHT at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati contains 'the stuff of stars'
FLY BY NIGHT at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati (ETC) certainly flies. It darts and dives and wheels and winds and spins and soars. Which is to warn you that this is not a traditional musical. Sure, there are plenty of traditional elements: New York City, a love triangle, an estranged father-son, a star-to-be. But this is not strictly a love story. Nor is it strictly a New York City story nor a pop/rock musical nor a folk musical. Leave expectations at the door, let the story unfold in its unique and circuitous way, and you may discover the stuff of stars.
The story, conceived and written by Kim Rosenstock with additional writing by Will Connolly and Michael Mitnick, brings together a collection of characters and sets them on paths that coalesce during the Great Northeast Blackout of 1965. The writers deliver just enough tunes with a classic 1950s rock 'n roll style to channel the era, without losing today's pop/rock musical theatre sound. The music is catchy, and weaves in and out unobtrusively. Having a live band was a special treat, and the four-piece combo fueled the emotional energy.
ETC seldom disappoints in its staging, and this show is no exception. Brian c. Mehring's set & lighting designs incorporate symbolic circles and triangles, play with light and darkness, and bring a wondrous starscape to life inside.
The cast is excellent. Michael G. Bath, who makes the most of every role, here delivers irresistible gruff charm as Crabble, the deli owner who longs for his WWII days in air traffic control. Michael Gerard Carr is a charming, approachable everyman adorably baffled by love and loss. He has several songs in which his voice and guitar skills shine.
Brooke Steele delivers my favorite ETC performance of hers yet. Her voice is always dynamic and versatile, but this role reveals a refreshing grounded maturity. The song "Stars, I Trust" and its surrounding scene were honest, heartfelt, and heartbreaking. Phil Fiorini, as a grieving widower, will warm your heart and break it simultaneously. His second act number "Cecily Smith" demands tissues.
Maya Farhat and Patrick Earl Phillips have the hardest jobs. Phillips' clueless and possibly talentless playwright is earnest and entertaining, but the sometimes-irrelevant role is the one I'd prefer to see edited. And Farhat's Daphne left me wanting more, but I cannot say if it was due to Farhat's performance or just the shallow nature of the character. Her voice was lovely, though, with several strong money notes.
The tour de force, however, is Nathan Robert Pecchia as the Narrator (and a dozen peripheral characters). At first, I was perplexed by how many different personas he was expected to assume, wondering if it was too much for both actor and audience. But well before halfway through the first act, I was in the palm of his hand. He masterfully dropped in and out of characters, without making any one too outlandish-but just out-there enough. Shoutout to Reba Senske's costume design for showing us the endless uses of a handkerchief. In addition, Pecchia's singing voice was rich and resonant, and his Narrator was charming, impish, and eager for us to leave the evening with warm hearts.
The show is long. I can't point to any one thing that should have been edited, it's just long. And the non-linear storytelling takes a little time to gather momentum. But the story has a lot of beautiful things to say, and it says them well. I recommend reading the director's note and the program notes-they helped me appreciate a few details more deeply. And the overall themes of connectivity, a shared source and a shared destiny-it is a devastating yet warm and hopeful tale.
I left the theater particularly touched by one line. "Who cares what you are listening to? It's who you're listening with." Bring a loved one. Sit back. Enjoy the flight.
FLY BY NIGHT runs through September 29th at Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati on Vine Street in Over-the-Rhine. Tickets and more information can be found at ensemblecincinnati.org