In "Fly by Night," a 1965 New York City blackout emerges as a magical night where time stops and stars alone light the sky. But the magic in the first full production of this new musical isn't as potent as it should be.
A quirky urban fairy tale that spins around grief, fate and Verdi's "La Traviata," the almost three-hour show -- now at TheatreWorks -- does have a beguiling indie charm and considerable promise. Alas, some truly enchanting songs -- such as "Circles in the Sand," which is snappy enough to become a breakaway pop hit -- get lost amid more mundane tunes as the action wanders around in the dark during a very long first act. It's as if the show's creators knew that they wanted to end with a bang, with the mythical night the lights went out in Manhattan, but they weren't sure how to get the main characters there.
Crafted by playwrights Kim Rosenstock ("Tigers Be Still") and Michael Mitnick and musician Will Connolly, "Fly by Night" -- a hit at last year's New Works Festival at TheatreWorks -- is an impish fable about the interconnectedness of life in the big city. It's got gobs of pluck and appeal but tries too hard to be clever. The plot skips back and forth in time, but these jumps rarely startle or inform. The jokes are pithy, but they get repeated until they lose their pop. And the themes take too long to fit into place.
Still, the writers are a smart and witty bunch, and they imbue the work with a wondrous depth of insight into the crippling nature of loss. From Harold's widower dad (James Judy), who carries his record player everywhere because it reminds him of his dead wife, to the surly sandwich maker (Michael McCormick), whose only moment of glory came in Word War II, the musical's supporting characters are richly idiosyncratic creatures we yearn to know more about. There's too much filler in between the effervescent moments, but at its best, "Fly by Night" casts a buoyant spell.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the romance at the heart of the adventure. The love triangle between the mousy Harold (an endearing turn by Ian Leonard), the audacious Daphne (Rachel Spencer Hewitt) and her wallflower sister Miriam (Kristin Stokes) lacks the element of surprise.
It's hard to figure out what Harold, a nerd in a dead-end job, and Daphne, a wannabe starlet in white go-go boots, see in each other; we're instantly aware that their relationship is doomed, which makes it hard to sit through the meandering run-up to their wedding. It's also obvious that Harold and Miriam, a shy waitress in an all-night diner, are made for each other, so they simply seem to be killing time until the big night arrives.
To be fair, there are many lovely touches here. Miriam's chipper waitress anthem, saucily delivered by Stokes, is delightful. The versatile Wade McCollum owns every scene as the wry narrator-muse of the piece. He comments on the action and plays a cavalcade of parts, from Daphne and Miriam's mom to a fortunetelling gypsy. His smart-alecky wit injects zing into scenes that play out a little too predictably, such as Miriam's fateful encounter with the psychic and Harold's descent into zombied-out depression. Of all the characters onstage, the narrator forges the strongest bond with the audience.
Still, director Bill Fennelly elicits genuine performances from all involved -- which helps elevate the romp. Even when the script feels a tad repetitive, the cast works overtime to etch each moment with sincerity. Stokes shines, finding the grit in a too-sweet character singing "Stars I Trust." Leonard shades Harold's coming-of-age journey with a lot of nuance, which is tricky because, like Daphne and Miriam, his character seems underwritten. The tenor of the relationship between the sisters also seems vague.
The smaller characters are more fully fleshed out. Judy brings the house down when Harold's grief-stricken father finally finds someone who will listen while he talks about his late wife. His moving aria about "Cecily Smith" is as beautiful as it is simple. It's also savvily-timed so that we are dying to know more about him by the time he breaks into song. It's the perfect marriage of music and emotion.
That sense of authenticity also pays off in the bewitching scenes of the blackout, when hard-boiled New Yorkers take to the streets for an impromptu citywide block party. Dane Laffrey's minimalist set of black flats and boxes framed by light bulbs also showcases the musical's sense of whimsy.
Time and place are merely states of mind in this fantastical universe where we make up our own reality as we go along.
Contact Karen D'Souza at 408-271-3772. Check out her theater reviews, features and blog at www.mercurynews.com/karen-dsouza.
'Fly by Night'
Conceived by Kim Rosenstock, written by Will Connolly, Michael Mitnick and Rosenstock
Through: Aug. 13
Where: TheatreWorks, Lucie Stern Community Center, 1355 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes (one intermission)
Tickets: $19-$69, 650-463-1960, www.theatreworks.org