Fly by Night;
And Night People
FLY BY NIGHT
There's a place for more modest, sweeter little musicals among the bigger shows that have high drama or splashier fun. Last year's limited run production at Playwrights Horizons, Fly by Night, doesn't try to be its bigger-scaled cousins, but has its pleasures when taken on its own terms. If you haven't seen or read up on the show (a plot synopsis will be yours in the booklet if buy the physical copy), you will miss a lot just by sampling the cast album's tracks. It's one of those musicals where the plot should not be dismissed or you'll have missed context and information that is needed to "get it." (The story's impactful ending could not be specifically determined by listening to the final songs, as they don't spell it out.) If, as it is here, a song in a show is supposed to be something written or "performed" by, for or about a character, and we're not talking about someone who's supposed to be a polished pro, it makes a difference to know that it's meant to sound green and overeager. More than with some other cast album's tracks that stand alone rather sturdily, the whole is far more than the sum of its parts with these plot-dependent individual pieces. It's a well-cast show with the material sung by competent actors who've shown their mettle in strongly-etched, memorable performances on cast albums in recent years as Next to Normal, The Shaggs and See What I Wanna See.
I quite enjoy this album and find that it's one that grows in weight and becomes more involving the more I hear it and chew on the messages of the story that is not told quite chronologically. It takes place in 1964 and 1965, although I wish the pop/rock-inflected songs more strongly and specifically echoed elements of the era. You won't find name-dropping references to the period or a "what happened?!?" number reacting to the sudden loss of power in the widespread blackout that, nevertheless, plays into the plot. But the show has some power of its own. In its title number, which is the opener, we're presented with commentary about life being filled with various length periods that can be "Long wide stretches of the ordinary" or "one flickering flame of light." Besides taking that in with a nod, we can't fully appreciate how it will apply herein until we're immersed in the situations and get beyond the basic incidents and the plot, as they say, thickens. Like the scene where a character has her future told in specific and non-specific ways, we're given words that sink in later in that "Aha!" moment that clarifies. Some patience and indulgence is needed with the grousing and self-absorption of characters at first so as not to dismiss them as unworthy of our sympathies. Like the score, they can grow on you.
Adam Chanler-Berat as a young man named Harold moping about being at a loss for what to do, likewise struggling as a songwriter, pouring his heart out in a song on stage, or Patti Murin as his soon-to-be girlfriend Daphne, belting out with a sense of arrogant entitlement how she should be, nay, is a "Star" as a performer herself could rankle. But it sets them up in short hand. Points taken. And, upon being rejected at yet another audition, Daphne's burst of rage insulting a playwright's work, to his face, in no uncertain terms (that it "stinks worse than garbage") hardly makes her the picture of charm and subtlety. But her stunning honesty wins the self-doubting author's respect. Go figure. Bryce Ryness is colorful and comic as this fellow. The characters soften, with thanks to the ways of Cupid and his bow. But which will be "fly-by-night" relationships or career opportunities?
Daphne's sister Miriam, played and sung winsomely by Allison Case, isin contrast to her siblinga sweetheart throughout. She is quite contenteven joyfulworking as a waitress at a diner that serves "Breakfast All Day," while Daphne resents her own bread-and-butter job in retail, and Harold and his boss explode about the deadening daily deli life as sandwich-makers. In "Eternity," they sing how their repetitive daily tasks seem neverending, nailing the claustrophobia and maddening feeling in a terrific performance. Working well off each other's sparks, Chanler-Berat and Michael McCormick, as his weary but wailing employer, capture the frustration of dead-end, mind-deadening jobs very well indeed.
While evidencing some believable rage or eager-beaver, bowled-over-by-attraction enthusing, I wish the performances and writing were less brashly glib and more nuanced in the earliest numbers by the younger characters. Still, they have a certain uncomplicated appeal that's appropriate to the restlessness and determination that serve as engines for them. But anchoring the show is Henry Stram as a commenting narrator who takes on various other roles (not all sung, thus not all represented on the CD, which does have some dialogue within songs). In "The Prophecy," he is LOL funny as a chiding and shrugging fortune teller with a terrifically entertaining cadence. It's a real highlight. But the show deepens, and depends on, a more serious question about whether predestination is real. Exploring this issue, or rejecting it decisively comes into sharp focus towards the end, with Chanler-Berat and Case especially effective on opposite poles of opinion.
Proving the theory that in writing's specifics we can find generalities with which to identify and be moved by, the courtship story-song about "Cecily Smith" is a real winner. I should say a double winner as it is included in two versions. As a widower of one year, Peter Friedman is touching and disarming recalling his courtship days, tenderly describing hand-holding and conversations. As a bonus track, it's heard in the more youthful, gentler voice of Will Connolly, one-third of the musical's writing team (along with Michael Mitnick and conceiver Kim Rosenstock). In both versions, the song's lesson is delivered with much heart: "Life is not the things that we do/ It's who we're doing them with."
While the blaring of some electric guitar could be the cause of several volume adjustments, it's interesting to have a pre-existing band, a trio, playing the music (Foe Destroyer), with the theatre-experienced and reliably commanding Vadim Feichtner conducting and on one of the two keyboards. In its best moments, Fly by Night flies high as a welcome and worthy addition to a cast album collection and the quickly growing library of interesting and adventurous releases from Yellow Sound Label, produced by its own Michael Croiter. I can't help but notice that the show's lighting director was another Croiter, lighting a show whose action is partially set during a blackout, but producer Croiter lights up the world of cast albums quite well. And when new shows have short runs and not everyone can get to them, where would we be without cast albums? In the dark.
First the good news: singer Ken Greves is in the company of three excellent musicians. He's chosen some excellent songs. The two songs with melodies by the great Cy Coleman are little-known but fine ones. Included are some thoughtful, generally neglected introductory verses which really put their better-known main courses (choruses) in perspective. And beyond just being a theme album collecting songs addressing aspects of the night, Night People is particularly well programmed so that one number satisfyingly leads to the next, with things grouped well: The title track by Tommy Wolf and Fran Landesman from their musical The Nervous Set, not sounding dated, is followed by a selection penned by Landesman and another co-writer. Then we get two oldies about the potency of the moon, both associated with Billie Holiday. Then there are a couple of things where it's about the hour of midnight. Following a moody "Moon and Sand" come a pair of break-up songs, then a quartet of laments all set in bars and a closing medley about the coming of dawn following those long, tough nights.
Despite all the tears and crying in one's rounds of beers, the album doesn't sink in the mire of weepy self-pity, due to some restraint and jazz smarts that lift it. And the more optimistic moments are allowed to show their happiness and hopefulness with glimmers and subtler glow rather than neon or spotlights turned up glaringly high.
Now the bad news: Sometimes, vocally, Mr. Greves' grasp exceeds his reach. Not blessed with an assured sense of pitch, he doesn't always make the needed leaps to land securely where he needs to. And sometimes the care required not to stray is too distractingly apparent. Though (of course) better than the alternative, some ultra-cautious or very clipped notes shortchange the songs and make a listener feel we share his discomfort zone. It's quite a contrast with the fleet ease of top pianist Frank Ponzio, cool bassist Peter Donovan, and laidback drummer Vito Lesczak on the blithe and free-feeling instrumental breaks. There are times when the accompaniment seems to be weighed down in order to focus on diligently attempting to keep the singer in check, so things can get lugubrious when they need to take flight and settle into a richer ambiance. On albums with these issues, such negatives are somewhat diminished in listening again, as one recalls and then "accepts" the limitations and knows that indeed there are good things to come. Listening for the first time to the tracks chronologically, note that some quite challenging, jazz melody lines are to be confronted right off the bat. And, for what it's worth, the entire CD of 14 tracks was all recorded in one day. (That was back in 2011, though it only came out this season, to be the singer's third release.)
Following the title tune, the second Landesman co-written piece, about having a "Small Day Tomorrow," doesn't have the sly, tongue-in-cheek feel heard when sung by its other writer, jazzman Bob Dorough, or others I've heard play with it. Greves seems a bit sullen and resentful, maybe jealous of the oh-so-importantly-employed person calling it a night because of the next day's busy whirlwind (the true inspiration for this lyric). I miss that lightness, but can begin to see the number in a new light, rather than the bright side of someone footloose and fancy-free, if monetarily restricted and thus somewhat conflicted. Moonlight becomes him in "I Wished on the Moon" and "What a Little Moonlight Can Do," the latter with the most staccato "ooh-ooh-ooh" imaginable preceding the title line, impactful finally at the number's end when some oomph is added. The Cy Coleman/Carolyn Leigh "Let Me Down Easy" is a less dramatic precursor to "Tell Me on a Sunday" as a request to use kid gloves for a break-up. The other Coleman item, "Early Morning Blues," with his early-career lyricist Joseph McCarthy, combined here with Joe Greene's "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Cryin'" finds the singer rewardingly in his most robust voice, a welcome burst of vigor with the tentativeness seen elsewhere nowhere to be found.
Two of the barroom-set set pieces are among the CD's best, emerging as fully realized story-songs: "I Keep Going Back to Joe's" and "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)" with the customer asking for a round of drinks to accompany his tale of woe ("So, set 'em up, Joe. I got a little story you ought to know"). We really feel a sense of time and place and a flesh-and-blood person who's down and out, lingering with his drink on the rocks to ease the pain of love also of the same condition as he settles in to his familiar environment.
The basic sound of Greves' voice is an appealing one and there's an inherent wisdom in his singing that indicates a man who's lived some of life's ups and downs and respects and loves quality songs. His diction is attentive without calling attention to itself in a labored way. The jazz trio's work is quite commendable, though some longer mood-setting intros and even more adventurous solos would have been very welcome. But they add an easygoing flair and musical intelligence. In any case, there's a special feel herein for night times that can have a touch of the mystique of the moon or seem endlessly bleak, time standing still in all cases. Nocturnal creatures have soulmates here.