Thanks to Dallas Theater Center, Dallas has been privileged to play host to a series of productions that have played here before New York got a crack at them. In recent years, this has included the musicals Giant and Give It Up!, the second of which played on Broadway as Lysistrata Jones, and which also featured Andrew Rannells before his big break starring in The Book of Mormon.
That streak continues with Fly By Night (playing at Kalita Humphreys Theater through May 26), a rock musical set in mid-1960s New York. A show with many interconnected storylines, it mainly follows three characters: Harold (Damon Daunno), a lowly sandwich maker whose recent personal loss provides the means for inspiration; Daphne (Whitney Bashor), a South Dakota girl who dreams of making it big on Broadway; and Daphne’s sister Miriam (Kristin Stokes), who reluctantly accompanies her sibling to New York to provide moral and financial support.
A love triangle does ensue, but FBN has more up its sleeves than just that. A narrator (Asa Somers) deftly guides us through the trio’s daily interactions, which includes Harold’s father Mr. McClam (David Coffee), who’s trying to maintain a connection to the world; Crabble (Michael McCormick), Harold’s boss at the sandwich shop who still dreams of his time in the military; and Joey Storms (Alex Organ), a tortured playwright who comes to see Daphne as his muse.
Fly By Night is about as finely-tuned a comic machine as you will ever encounter in the theater.
In the first act, FBN shows that it’s about as finely-tuned a comic machine as you will ever encounter in the theater. The dialogue from writers Will Connolly, Michael Mitnick and Kim Rosenstock is crisp and transitions from character to character so smoothly that you’d swear the actors had been working together for years.
Lines started by the narrator are finished by another character, often making a punchline come out of left field. Songs start and stop on a dime, with the narrator often interrupting to provide some sort of new information. If not done right, these quirks could be annoying, but they’re handled so well that they come off as delightful every single time.
The songs are equally as fantastic. The structure in which each song is introduced is different than a traditional musical, as many of them have an organic beginning in the plot. Harold, Daphne and even Miriam usually have real reasons to be singing, as opposed to singing dialogue that could otherwise have been spoken.
But even those that aren’t served by the plot are great, an indication of how well-composed they are. Highlights include an early rocker by Harold that resonates throughout the show; a song of hope sung by Daphne before she leaves for New York; a duet between Harold and Daphne soon after they meet; and a song about stars and fate sung by the astronomy-obsessed Miriam.
As played by Somers, the narrator is likely to emerge as the audience favorite. More than just an omniscient presence, he’s called upon to play minor roles that help move the story along, often using nothing more than an accent and a period-appropriate pair of glasses or a scarf to indicate the transition. Somers’ skill at seamlessly moving between characters is one of the biggest pleasures of FBN.
Daunno is cast perfectly as the mild Harold. His floppy hair and humble demeanor make Harold someone for whom to root from minute one, and his voice ensures that you’ll remember him long after the musical ends.
Bashor and Stokes each get their moments to shine, utilizing their respective character traits to their advantage. At first it seems as if Bashor’s presence will overwhelm the plainer Stokes, but a big solo by Stokes blows away those expectations, and Stokes ultimately becomes the more memorable of the two.
The set is simple and yet complex at the same time, making great use of limited space. Furniture and other elements come out from the sides and back on tracks. The band — Austin-based Foe Destroyer — is artfully on display behind windows on the rear left, allowing for multiple occasions for characters to interact with them in humorous or exciting ways.
By the time the musical reaches its climax amidst the epic East Coast blackout on November 9, 1965, it's burrowed its way deep in the audience's heart. Hearty laughs in the first act give way to well-earned tears in the second, completing a journey of love, loss, destiny and hope.
After it finishes its run here, Fly By Night will make its New York premiere at Playwright Horizons in spring 2014. But DTC isn’t through with premieres this season, as it will put on Fly, a new musical about Peter Pan, for its 2012-2013 season finale.
Dallas-Fort Worth area theater lovers owe it to themselves to catch Fly By Night before it leaves town. It’s more than possible that the musical will go on to win multiple Tony Awards — it’s that good. And you can say you saw it first.