Broadway Rose and director Isaac Lamb are bringing the fleeting magic of stardust to the stage with their new production of the 2014 musical Fly by Night.
A potent mix of youthful optimism and struggle marks this dark comedy. From the opening, Joe Theissen’s narrator (one among many parts he plays), decked out in brill-combed hair, thin tie and small-lapel suit, takes us back to the kind of dirty but creative streets of Greenwich Village in 1965. The musical has the feel, look, and smell of a dusty early Simon and Garfunkel album, if it were co-written by Rod Serling: plot twists around learning through loss, and how to channel it with some catchy riffs.
Fly by Night is an off-Broadway musical by Kim Rosenstock, Will Connolly and Michael Mitnick, and it has the layers, heavy crafting and emotional insight that Yale mafia graduates are known for. From the first number, Circles in the Sand, the audience is hooked. You want to buy the soundtrack. It’s updated folk music that came out of the coffee shops and underground taverns in the early Bob Dylan-worshipping days: simple, syrupy, good pop with clever lyrics. John Quesenberry leads the band’s performances over two and a half hours with energy, enthusiasm, and charm. Connolly and Mitnick’s music is like a good Indie record; it’s Vampire Weekend and the Shins pared down to groovy elements. There is a seamless transition into every song and it’s amazing to watch dialogue slide into song. The “now they’re going to sing” abrupt monologues are missing, and as the cream separates, the dearness of the story rises to the top.
Benjamin Tissell is Harold, an earnest, drifting sandwich maker. His nebbishy outlook on the future puts him in a predictable box of work, home, work. His boss, Mr. Crabble (Tim Blough), is the iconic grump whose glory days were a blip in his youth. They act out a food service hand-jive as a monotonous duet to the rhythm of the number Eternity. Quesenberry’s band matches them, and the more contemporary sounds of millennial woe creep in. The dead-end job and dimly lit promise of tomorrow become eclipsed by an imaginative disassociation. Eternity is a memorable crescendo that sticks to your brain with its slight experimental cacophony.
Harold’s father, Mr. McClam (Gary Norman), pops in and out of his son’s life as a grieving widower. He’s the sturdy, but slightly slumped, well-put-together older man who seems less a person than a fixture on a block. He emerges at last in the second act with the powerful Cecily Smith, a tearjerking ballad to his wife, show-going, and La Traviata. Fly by Night is wound around the opera with music and plot quotes, but it’s more a gentle Wes Anderson-style reverence than an adaptation.
Fly by Night doesn’t have a beginning, middle and end, at least in that order. The story takes place over a year, but moves, bends and folds through time as if moments were the sudden flash of sneaker bottoms pouncing through a jump rope. The gossamer forces making and breaking the characters’ lives is what keeps them moving, the hook upon which their hopes are placed. It’s the kind of metaphysical daydream that humans flee into when the cold hard streets let them down one too many times.
Sean O’Skea’s set is a jumbled 5,000-piece puzzle, reminiscent of a vintage store that Holly Golightly of Breakfast at Tiffany’s might run. The props are not just furniture; in the actors’ presence they become weighted with meaning, and most of them are strung with tension. The hundred or so ceiling bulbs with contrasting filament sizes and weights are stand-ins for the teeming lights of the city, street signs, the stars, a breakdown.
The show has a love quadrangle, the kind of pileup that happens when kids are on their own for the first time. Two driven artists and two down-to-earth dreamers mix and match. Miriam (Rebecca Teran) is an overly optimistic waitress who lives to pour endless coffee and has an obsession with astronomy. Her sister Daphne (Malia Tippets) is a smart-looking modern girl with hair high to god, and plans to be a star of stage and screen. Tippets’s soulful soprano booms to new heights in Fly by Night, and by show’s end you can tell by her curtain bow she’s invested a lot of emotion into the role. Teran has an equally stunning range, but with the crystal overtones that match her character’s dewy-eyed outlook. The combination of top veteran Portland vocalists rounds out and polishes Fly by Night like a late-night brandy.
Aspiring actress Daphne’s playwright/producer/director Joey Storms (David Caldwell) lives up to his titles with a neurotic punch. He’s done enough rewrites to match Shakespeare’s page totals, but just can’t seem to hit the mark with his work, or with Daphne. Director Lamb brings out the character’s playful irony, and Caldwell’s neurotic ticks bring the house down in the middle of heart-wrenching complexity. Storms dons a woman’s sable coat that almost breaks at the shoulder seams as he struggles into the arms with the bravado of a true genius writer. Lamb lets the kids play and fall with a sensitivity that is mirrored in the father figures who try to mask the scars of living.
There’s twee craft to Fly by Night, but unlike its ’90s navel gazing aesthetic fore-bearers, it has compassion, understanding, and an incandescent imagination that swoops in like a superhero to shed a little light on the inevitable heartbreak that comes with living.
Fly by Night continues through October 23 at the Broadway Rose New Stage in Tigard. Ticket and schedule information here.