Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - July 22, 2011

Sweet and soaring

TheatreWorks' 'Fly By Night' is fresh and funny, with a thoughtful core

by Jeanie K. Smith

"Fly By Night" is the latest graduate of TheatreWorks' New Works Festival; it was workshopped last year and is now getting a full world premiere in Palo Alto. Written by playwrights Kim Rosenstock and Michael Mitnick, and musician Will Connolly, it's a fresh and funny musical with a thoughtful core. It's sure to wind up on Broadway in the near future.

Hapless sandwich maker Harold (Ian Leonard) has no direction to his life until he buys a coat from Daphne (Rachel Spencer Hewitt), a wannabe Broadway star biding time until she gets discovered. They immediately fall in love, but as the relationship gets serious, Daphne is indeed discovered by producer/playwright Joey Storms (Keith Pinto), who wants her to star in his first sure-to-be-a-hit show.

Harold tries to be supportive even as they drift apart, but then a chance encounter with Miriam (Kristin Stokes), a diner waitress with a prophecy, changes his life in unexpected ways. It also happens that Miriam is Daphne's sister, a discovery that quashes any budding relationship between Harold and Miriam.

Mix into the soup Harold's grieving father (James Judy), fixated on the opera that brought his beloved late wife and him together; a weary sandwich shop owner (Michael McCormick) wanting to change his life; and an omnipresent and omniscient narrator (Wade McCollum) who becomes numerous characters while providing clarification and context.

All the various subplots and complications build to a fateful event: the blackout of Nov. 9, 1965, that affected most of New England, plunging city after city into darkness for a whole night. The paths for all the characters intersect, plotlines come to fruition, and then a random incident changes everything again.

The show is quite charming and engaging, in part because of the extremely talented cast. Leonard perfectly embodies the nebbishy Harold who blossoms and learns to grab hold of life, and it's wonderful that he gets to be his rocker self on guitar. Stokes, a TheatreWorks favorite, shows off her acting skills in a beautifully nuanced role. Hewitt is sweet, funny, perky and appropriately self-absorbed. She can appear all surface, but also knows how to tug the heartstrings.

Judy brings the house down with a knockout solo number; Pinto does well with a minor role; and McCormick shows great comic timing. But the true standout of the show is McCollum as the narrator. He's astonishing and truly brilliant, stepping into role after role, seamlessly, on the turn of a dime. His talent for mimicry and expression is captivating, and adds an indelible aspect to the fabric of the show.

Director Bill Fennelly keeps the staging lively, making use of the many spaces and levels created by Dane Laffrey's inventive set. The lighting design by Paul Toben is mostly effective and evocative, although I wondered why the stars were amber and apparently unstable.

Minor quibbles with production values won't keep this show from being a huge hit. However, the ending, abrupt and random, might delay its rise to stardom. No spoilers here, but the deus ex machina aspects of the end seriously mar the narrative and send shockwaves through the audience. Attempts to explain this plot point via chaos theory and random universe events don't really justify the sudden shift to a whole different genre.

The writers can do better, having shown their talent in the first three-quarters of the show, and someone should be sending them back to the drawing board for an ending that is worthy of the beautiful context they've created.

You'll have to see it and decide for yourself, and I hope you do, because it's absolutely terrific entertainment. Go to enjoy the marvelous cast and the sheer pleasure of it all, from the great music to the witty dialogue.

What: "Fly By Night," a musical by Kim Rosenstock, Michael Mitnick and Will Connolly, presented by TheatreWorks

Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto

When: Through Aug. 13, with shows at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; and 7 p.m. Sundays.

Cost: Tickets are $19 to $67.

Info: Go to http://theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960.

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