Review: Fly By Night

2014-06-01 19.28.49I listened to the latest episode of Radiolab on my way to Playwrights Horizons last night. It’s all about objects and the mystical hold they can have on people. I don’t know if I could have had a more fitting introduction to the new musical Fly By Night, because this show echoed Radiolab both in its subject matter and in its treatment.

It’s the story of two sisters from South Dakota who move to New York City in 1964 and end up falling for the same guy, but it’s told in that nonlinear style you’ll recognize from the podcast. A character will sing a song, for example, and then the narrator comes out and says something like “Wait, let me back up and tell you how he got there.” This show jumps around a heck of a lot, but ultimately everything  fits together like a puzzle. My comparison only goes so far, though. That’s because Radiolab often grounds itself with a reality check from Jad and Robert, but Fly By Night soars — as only a musical can — unchecked into its on musings on timing, fate, soul mates, and yes, the power of objects. (It’s like Radiolab on Ritalin.)

Unfortunately. Because I hate that stuff. Any show that tosses the term “soul mate” around is probably going to get me shifting uncomfortably in my seat. Plus there’s an actual psychic making doomy-but-accurate predictions. Plus there’s a ridiculous death in the second act. Common sense doesn’t hold much sway here: characters are constantly acting in bizarre fashion just because it serves the plot to do so. For example, aspiring actress Daphne (Patti Murin) needs money for headshots, so she up and sells the car her waitress sister Miriam (Allison Case) uses to get to work. This is just because there’s a plot contrivance in store that requires Miriam to walk to work. A Broadway show in Fly By Night rehearses for 11 months, just because the plot requires it to open on a particular November day. One more: Harold’s dad (Peter Friedman) is old, sad, and lonely after his wife’s death. They’d met right after World War II when both were young. Suddenly it occurred to me that since this show is set in 1965, Friedman’s character would actually only have been around 40 or even younger. But the plot requires him to be old and lonely, so he is.

Do I sound grumpy? If I do, it’s just that I’m particularly disappointed because of the talent on display. There’s a lot to like here. This musical is at its best in moments of humor and levity: it’s got lots of kooky and comical one-liners, some appealing and tuneful songs (especially Mr. Friedman’s big act two song), and a likable cast. Allison Case’s performance reminded me a lot of her performance in Hair (but I liked her in Hair, so no complaints here), and Patti Murin as her sister Daphne was also very appealing, though her character’s modern persona doesn’t strike me as remotely 1960s.

I wonder if this show is going to be reworked further. For Fly By Night to appeal (to me anyway), the authors (Kim Rosenstock, Michael Mitnick, and Will Connolly) would have to ground it in real life a lot more, though I understand that may compromise its quirky appeal. Still, though: if these characters don’t seem like real people, why are their destinies supposed to matter to us?

My grade: C
Ticket price: $55
Worth it: No
Standing ovation watch: Yes