By Tina Arth
I rarely expect “surprise” to figure as one of my principal reactions to a Broadway Rose production. My usual responses are awe at the vocals, band, musical direction, and acting, with a hefty dose of wonder at the tech work that brings their musicals, big and small, to life. I am often familiar with the play, and if it’s new to me it still can be easily slotted into one of a few basic categories: big Broadway-style musical, concert-like small show, quirky dark or light comedy, cute holiday revue. “Darkly comical metaphysical rock musical” is not a phrase I ever anticipated using for a Broadway Rose review – until now. The Portland-area premiere of Fly By Night, a collaboration by playwrights Will Connolly, Michael Mitnick, and Kim Rosenstock, is really quite wonderful – one of those shows that stays with you for days as you muse over the mixture of darkness and light, text and subtext, isolation and connection, simplicity and complexity that make this production so compelling and memorable.
Director Issac Lamb and his cast tell the story of a single year – from November 1964 through November 1965 – in the lives of six people (plus a narrator), culminating in the Great Northeast Blackout of 1965. The lives of two sisters from South Dakota, a humble sandwich maker and his boss, a bereaved widower, and a wannabe Broadway promoter intersect (helped along by the narrator/fortune-teller, who also plays the girls’ mother as needed). The storytelling is honest about its non-linear nature and makes liberal use of the narrator as a guide, so the audience has no trouble following forward and backward leaps in chronology. Key themes revolve around connections – between spouses, parents and children, lovers, siblings, old friends, one’s own memories, and ultimately between humans and the universe. Chance encounters and seemingly random choices lead inexorably to the show’s heartbreaking finale, where key characters finally are able to find a measure of hope, comfort, and peace from each other.
Joe Thiessen gets many of the best comic moments and makes the most of them as he cheerfully shifts from omniscient narrator to cold South Dakota mama to soothsayer. The competition for nostalgic pathos is tight between Gary Norman (the widower “Mr. McClam”) and Tim Blough (deli owner Crabble). Blough captures Crabble’s working class despair to perfection, and simply sparkles with life during his two turns directing traffic – once in memory, once in real life. Norman wins the day, however – not with his character’s pathological grieving and desperate numbness, but when he allows himself to feel again. In the simple but beautiful “Cecily Smith,” he delivers the line that perhaps best sums up the whole show: “Life is not the things that we do – it’s who we’re doing them with.”
The heart of the show is the curious love triangle of the two sisters and the sandwich-maker. Malia Tippets (“Daphne”) is charming but unstoppable in her furious search for stardom, and expresses through ”Daphne Dreams” and ”I Need More” the futility of trying to validate herself by seeking the approval of others. Rebecca Teran is everything the authors could have wanted in Miriam – cute, winsome, enthusiastic, impossibly kind and sincere – and she tells us everything we need to know in her exquisite and poignant delivery of “Stars I Trust.” If Miriam and Daphne had grown up in in New York, rather than South Dakota, we might not be able to accept their attraction to Benjamin Tissell’s sandwich maker “Harold” – an awkward, lonely drifter nursing dreams he’ll never pursue while life just sort of happens to him. “Circle In the Sand” becomes his anthem to lack of direction, but when he grabs hold of life in Act II’s “Me With You” Tissell completely nails his character’s expansion: “I never dreamed that I could feel a great deal better than just fine,” and we see the man beneath the mayonnaise, meat, cheese and lettuce.
Music director/conductor/pianist Jon Quesenberry ties the whole production together in a neat musical bundle – vocal ensemble and band work beautifully to tell and sell the story. Lighting is key in the show, and designer Gene Dent creates a magical world of light and darkness building up to a powerful, light-filled denouement.
I rarely rush to buy soundtracks of new musicals, but “Fly By Night” is one that I must have – not because of the elegance of the songs, but to remind me of the almost Taoist harmony the authors successfully project through this memorable show. As with many little known shows, audiences are strongly advised to see it now –it may not be back in the area for a long, long time and it should not be missed.
Fly By Night is playing at Broadway Rose’s New Stage, 12850 SW Grant Avenue, Tigard through Sunday, October 23d.