BWW Reviews: World Premiere of FLY BY NIGHT is a Smash!

By: Jul. 18, 2011

Last night the nationally acclaimed TheatreWorks of Silicon Valley presented the world premiere of Fly by Night, a refreshingly quirky, dark comedy of a musical that explores the role of fate in the love triangle of two sisters and a guitar-playing sandwich maker named Harold McClam. The plot swirls magically around the fateful night of November 9, 1965 when New York City is plunged into an extended blackout that changes the lives of Harold and company forever. Original and inventive, Fly by Night is a fantastical and lyrically rich play that bears clear signs of genius as it asks us to ponder the paths we take - both unplanned and chosen.

The show is the creative brainchild of Kim Rosenstock who first conceived of the idea while she was Artistic Director of the Yale Summer Cabaret. Collaborating with Michael Mitnick, who brought in Will Connolly, the shows next iteration was workshopped at TheatreWorks' New Works Festival 2010 and received rave reviews, finally becoming the centerpiece of this year's New Work Festival and premiering last night.

It's a brave show that starts off with a funeral (set one year before the blackout) but it's one of those unplanned happenings that sends many lives in new directions. Harold (the talented Ian Leonard) and his father (impressively played by James Judy) find themselves lost after the death of mother and wife Cecily Smith. Each retreats - Mr. McClam into the haze of yesteryear, when his wife first introduced him to the opera La Traviata - and Harold into a plodding job at a sandwich shop with only his mother's old guitar to keep him company.

Meanwhile, somewhere in Hill City, South Dakota, Daphne (Rachel Spencer Hewitt) dreams of becoming a Broadway star while her sister Miriam (Kristin Stokes) wants nothing more than to sit on a swing and gaze at the stars.

But off they go to the Big Apple in their late father's sea foam green Imperial (remember, it's the 60's). Daphne finds work in a coat shop and goes to every audition she can, keeping her morale up in the song "Daphne Dreams." "I'm a moonbeam in a fog," she sings, "I'm a stream about to flow...I'm a secret they don't know/I'm a star!"

Miriam finds the perfect job as the late shift waitress at the Greasy Spoon Café. In the song "Breakfast All Day," she is dazzled by the fact that you can get breakfast there at any time of the day or night, something that would never impress her more ambitious sister.

The show is narrated by the amazingly versatile Wade McCollum who nimbly anchors the show while morphing into an MC at an open mic night as well as Daphne and Miriam's elderly mother and, most importantly of all, a gypsy fortune teller who makes a fateful prediction for Miriam (Kristin Stokes) one dark and lonely night.

When Harold meets Daphne they both want to be "More than Just a Friend" and quickly fall in love - that is until, thru a twist of fate, he meets Miriam.

The comical bursts are liberally sprinkled throughout. Harold sings of being a sea turtle in "Circles in the Sand" (Am I headed for the highway instead of the sea...Sharks might make me turtle stew/What do I do?), the gypsy's crystal ball keeps changing color and Miriam can only count three stars when she gets to New York.

There are wonderfully touching and tender moments as well, greatly served by Dane Laffrey's deep and versatile set design. Two large openings in the floor, stage left and right, become a stoop, subway entrances, downstairs rooms and the place where the narrator's props magically appear. Laffrey and Lighting Designer Paul Toben worked in tandem to create the lovely, magical, multi-layered hanging stars that figure prominently in several crucial scenes. Sound Design by Jeff Mockus was subtle and used to great effect.

Broadway veteran Michael McCormick plays Harold's irascible sandwich shop boss, Crabble. McCormick is a comic delight as the dour boss whose World War II glory days are briefly revived during the blackout.

Supporting actor Jeff Pinto gives a good turn as Joey Storms, the playwright and producer who discovers Daphne and gives her a shot on Broadway, but the show stopper comes from James Judy who, as Mr. McClam, finally gets his moment during the blackout to sing about his wife, "Cecily Smith." The song tells the touching tale of when they met and how she convinces him to go to the opera. He's worried that he won't like it, but she tells him, "Who cares what you're listening to, it's who you're listening with," and in that moment you can almost hear the collective sigh of earnest satisfaction from the audience at the beauty of that thought.

Act Two has a few problems, the length being one of them. As playwright Joey Storms says to Daphne, "I know what you're thinking - the second act needs work," and in fact it does, but Fly by Night is a new work in progress and trying to do too much is not such a bad thing. I can do some fortune-telling of my own and I predict that success is written in the stars for Fly by Night.


Fly by Night: Musical Comedy
Playing now through August 13th at the Lucie Stern Theater in Palo Alto
Running Time 2 hours, 40 minutes
Written by Kim Rosenstock, Michael Mitnick and Will Connolly
Directed by Bill Fennelly
Photos courtesy of Tracy Martin