Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
None of this is the fault of the cast or creative team, nor of director Sarah Rasmussen, who keeps Fly by Night zipping along merrily, and absorbing the somber tone of act two as the story requires, while managing frequent jumps back and forth in time and place. The production has garnered attention for bringing two established pop music local legends, bass player John Munson (Semisonic, The New Standards) and singer-songwriter Chris Koza (Rogue Valley, and multiple solo albums), into the orbit of our theater scene. A terrific performance by Jim Lichtscheidl as the Narrator, who must hold the whole enterprise together, a keen comic turn by the immensely likable Joy Dolo, and skilled performances by the rest of the cast give the Fly by Night every opportunity to succeed.
The show takes place over the course of a year, from November 9, 1964, to November 9, 1965, mainly in New York City, with a couple of forays into Hill City, South Dakota. After the opening title song in which our narrator, aided by the entire cast, warns us that life can change with the flick of a light, we time travel to 1964 as young Harold McClam (Chris Koza) and his father (played with utter despair by James Detmar) are mourning the death of his mother. Going through his mom's things, Harold discovers a guitar that she never learned to play, and asks if he can have it. We whip ahead several months to see him perform at an open mic as his "soul mate" Miriam (Leah Anderson) walks in. We then go back again several months to Hill City where Miriam loves her job as waitress in a humble diner and was taught by her father to trust the constancy of the stars in the dark night skies of South Dakota. Miriam's sister Daphne (Royer Bockus) decides to leave home for New York with plans to become a big Broadway star and she persuades Miriam to come with her for moral support and her cooking.
The fortunes of these three main characters unspool. Daphne goes to fruitless auditions, meets and falls in "like" with Harold, and is discovered by dilettante playwright Joey Storms (Joshua James Campbell), who adopts Daphne as his muse and builds a musical around her. Miriam is pleased to find a waitress job at a humble diner, is told by a psychic the three signs that she has met her soul mate, and proceeds to meet Harold, not knowing he is the guy her sister is dating. Harold learns guitar, works in a sandwich shop, ignores his father's pleas for comfort and companionship, meets Daphne, proposes to Daphne, and then meets Miriam. This is all in the giddy first half of the show, along with Mr. McClam's periodic anguished cries of "Cecily!" for his beloved, departed wife.
You see the set-up going into act two: Joey is engaged to Daphne but in love with Miriam, Miriam believes Harold is destined to be her soul mate, Daphne is obsessed with rehearsals for Joey's play and becoming a star, Joey is obsessed with making his play (which really is a mess) perfect in order to win Daphne's heart, and Mr. McClam has only his sorrow for company. These plot strands converge on November 9, 1965, when the electricity in New York City (and most of the northeast U.S. and Ontario) goes out, changing the lives of every character in the show. You might expect Fly by Night's creators Connolly, Mitnick and Rosenstock to use this occasion to draw on the theme that by losing their external power sources the characters find redemption within themselves. Instead, the story kind of sputters out with a tragic twist that leaves all of the other characters in limbo. There is also a key plot element without logic: why is Harold so unresponsive to his grieving father? Absent a reason, his coldness makes it hard to trust Harold's proclamations of love, or to be invested in his happiness.
In addition to being the essential narrator of the piece, Jim Lichtscheidl plays a variety of small parts, most of them with broad comic sensibility: the psychic, the emcee at the open mic club, Daphne and Miriam's mother, and a sincerely caring neighbor who takes time to listen to Mr. McClam's memories. His focused energy and playfulness go a long way toward making the show coherent. Chris Kozo has a charming, hang-dog presence as Harold. Both sisters are played by newcomers to Twin Cities stages: Royer Bockus captures Daphne's self-absorption and self-delusion, and Leah Anderson conveys Miriam's sincerity and good heart. Joshua James Campbell captures the cluelessness and manic energy of obsessed playwright Joey Storms. The immensely likeable Joy Dolo (as Crabble, Harold's sandwich shop boss) and James Detmar, as Mr. McClam, both deliver bull's eye performances.
John Munson's contribution as music consultant is hard to discern, but as a member of the four-piece band led by music director Mark Christine, he contributes to making the soft rock/pop/folk score sound great, even if the melodies evaporate soon after they are played. There are several songs that work well within the context of the story. Harold's song at the open mic, "Circles in the Sand", whimsically compares his life to a sea turtle that, once hatched on the beach, needs direction to find the ocean. In "More than Just a Friend," Harold and Daphne coyly consider their future. Miriam's "Stars I Trust" sums up her simple creed and Daphne's admits "I Need More" in act two, recognizing that her life isn't as great as she believed it to be. A comedy number has Harold and Crabble wail about putting mayonnaise, meat, cheese and lettuce between two slices of bread for "Eternity" and Mr. McClam has a bittersweet song about meeting the love of his life, "Cecily Smith."
The set is a rather hodge-podge looking collection of platforms of differing heights, a pull-out sandwich shop counter, a pull down diner booth, and a high perch for star-gazing. Along with its other strong qualities, the Jungle has a reputation for superb set design, but in this case "functional" is an apt description for Joseph Stanley's work. Costume, light and sound designs all meet the needs of the production without calling attention to themselves.
Fly by Night's originators might have stopped to consider its title. The phrase "fly by night" usually refers to an enterprise that has been put together without thorough planning or coherence. It might get the job done, but is not to be depended upon. In spite of some well-coined dialogue, witty lyrics, and agreeable music, I'm afraid the whole does not add up to the sum of its parts. Director Rasmussen and her team at the Jungle put their heart into making it work, and manage to get this flight off the ground, but the darn thing falls apart upon landing.
Fly by Night continues at the Jungle Theater through July 23, 2017. 2951 Lyndale Avenue S., Minneapolis, MN, 55408. Tickets are $35.00 -$45.00. Seniors (60+) and students, through undergraduates, $5.00 discount. $25.00 public rush and $20.00 student rush (1 ticket with ID), for unsold seats two hours before performance at box office. For tickets call 612- 822-7073 or go to www.jungletheater.com.
Conceived by: Kim Rosenstock; Book, Music and Lyrics: Will Connolly, Michael Mitnick and Kim Rosenstock, ; Director: Sarah Rasmussen; Music Director: Mark Christine; Music Consultant: John Munson; Set Design: Joseph Stanley; Costume Design: Trevor Bowen; Lighting Design: Barry Browning; Sound Designer: Sean Healey; Movement Consultant: Jim Lichtscheidl; Stage Manager and Properties: John Novak; Technical Director: Leazah Behrens.
Cast: Leah Anderson (Miriam), Royer Bockus (Daphne), Joshua James Campbell (Joey Storms), James Detmar (Mr. McClam), Joy Dolo (Crabble), Chris Koza (Harold McClam), Jim Lichtscheidl (Narrator).