By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The Fates may finally have sprinkled stardust on Dallas Theater Center's artistic director, Kevin Moriarty. For years he's been trying to launch a new musical here, with the hope of turning it into a Broadway success. Giant didn't do it. Neither did Lysistrata Jones. But his latest attempt, the dreamy Fly by Night, could be the one.
Now playing at Kalita Humphreys Theater, Fly by Night has it all: a strong, refreshingly original book by Will Connolly, Michael Mitnick and Kim Rosenstock (from Rosenstock's story idea); modern, memorable tunes played by Austin-based indie band Foe Destroyer (Cade Sadler, Chris McQueen, Daniel Garcia); and a small, adorable cast that's a mix of top Dallas actors and impressive New York imports.
When's the last time you saw a musical that left its audience happily crying and hugging each other during the curtain calls? That's what happened on opening night of Fly by Night, about as magical an evening as you'd ever want to experience in live theater. The love-in continued afterward, with people singing one character's signature tune, loudly, as they waltzed out, spellbound, into the parking lot.
What inspires all this? Start with the near-perfect alchemy of the production, directed by Bill Fennelly, with music direction by Zak Sandler and choreography by Joel Ferrell. This show looks, sounds and feels like the start of something big, even if the second act is a mite too long. (At nearly three hours, Fly by Night shouldn't take up quite so much of one.)
Like Our Town, The Fantasticks and maybe a sliver of Silver Linings Playbook, the show weaves into its overlapping love stories a resonating message about how the "invisible universe" connects us all. Throughout Fly by Night, set in 1965 before and during the famous blackout of the entire Eastern Seaboard, little moments of coincidence and synchronicity change the destinies of characters' lives. Grieving widower Mr. McClam (local actor David Coffee) hands his wife's old guitar to his sandwich-maker son, Harold (Damon Daunno). Shy Harold starts plunking out a little tune about sea turtles and, moments later, he's performing the song at an open-mic night. (It's a catchy tune that had the Kalita audience singing along like kids at a Wiggles concert.)
And there's the nervous young playwright named Joey (local Alex Organ), who drops into a Manhattan shop to buy a coat and spots a pretty salesgirl named Daphne (Whitney Bashor), who's perfect for the lead in the play he hasn't quite finished writing yet. She quits her job to pursue her dream of being a Broadway star, which is why she moved to New York from South Dakota to begin with.
How Harold ends up falling in love with Daphne, how Joey falls in love with her, too, and how Daphne's waitress-sister Miriam (Kristin Stokes) changes the fates of Harold, Daphne, Joey, Mr. McClam and sandwich-shop owner Crabble (Michael McCormick) on the night in 1965 when all the lights go out — it's all funny and wonderful, sweet and sad. All the stuff life is, but with better lyrics. (At her greasy-spoon job, Miriam sings, "I can't feel awful/when serving a waffle." You have to smile at that.)
All the performances are first-rate. Playing the Narrator and other roles, Asa Somers has dreamy prom-date looks and the comic timing of a great old Borscht Belt headliner. Bashor belts with power. Stokes carries the emotional weight of the show but keeps her performance from being weighed down by it. Her nicest moment is a solo sung on a swing that flies out over the audience's heads. (As a work-in-progress, there's still no official song list for Fly by Night.)
Organ, one of Dallas theater's best young serious leading men, gets a rare chance to be goofy as Joey. David Coffee sings the 11 o'clock number, a soaring ballad about how he met his late wife and shared her love of La Traviata. If Coffee's performance doesn't have you in tears, you're dead inside.
And young Damon Daunno has a burbly voice like Kermit the Frog and a big, expressive face that will read to the back rows of a Broadway house.
Astronomy is another theme in this musical; how we're all made from the same elements as galaxies seen through telescopes. That's certainly true for everyone involved in Fly by Night. They are stardust. They are golden.