DALLAS The concept that everything we know of life in our galaxy (and beyond) is essentially born from stardust, and therefore we are all connected on a cosmic level, is a theme that rarely feels trite. It’s almost too poetic for that — and it reaches poetic heights in the Fly by Night at Dallas Theater Center. Of the new musicals DTC has been aiding on a path to New York in recent years, Fly by Night — written by Will Connolly, Michael Mitnick and Kim Rosenstock (conceived by Rosenstock and begun when the three were students at the Yale School of Drama) — is by far the best.
With sophisticated simplicity, it takes a cue from Our Town and The Fantasticks, using a narrator (Asa Somers) to tell a story that goes beyond the 20-somethings at the core of its love triangle. It’s also about three other lost souls still searching for a toehold in the universe.
Set in 1965, the show deals with sisters Daphne (Whitney Bashor) and Miriam (Kristin Stokes), who leave small-town South Dakota for New York City because Daphne has dreams of fame. While Miriam is content to pour coffee in a diner (and look at the stars at night, which she once did with her late astronomer father), Daphne works in a clothing store while auditioning for stage work.
Daphne falls for sandwich maker Harold (Damon Daunno), who reciprocates. She has another admirer in hack playwright Joey Storms (Alex Organ), who writes a play for her after seeing her at an audition. Then Miriam and Harold meet, and the stars realign. Meanwhile, Harold’s father, Mr. McClam (David Coffee), is still mourning the death of his longtime wife and clutching a record of La traviata, the opera that brought them together. And Harold’s boss, Crabble (Michael McCormick), dreams of a life beyond his daily rut.
The story moves forward, backs up and jumps forward again (all in 1965) as the narrator connects these dots; in the end, they might resemble a pattern drawn from a Spirograph.
The narrator is a metaphor for the concept that we’ve all played in our heads over and over again, how our lives couldn’t have played out the way they have if we had not been in certain places at specific times, so minute in the grand scheme of time. It’s unimaginable, really, but we still can’t help trying to imagine the various scenarios had fate decided to go another direction.
Appropriately, director Bill Fennelly keeps it simple, using small remote-controlled set pieces (scenic design by Dane Laffrey) and props that the Narrator often hands off to the characters.
Most ingeniously, the musicians (Austin band Foe Destroyer, consisting of conductor/keyboardist Zak Sandler, guitarist Chris McQueen, bassist Daniel Garcia and drummer Cade Sadler) are in a raised, wood-paneled room downstage right. We view them through a large window, as if looking into a recording studio from the control room. What’s a human life without a soundtrack that accompanies it?
This soundtrack’s a good one, too. The show is still new, and the song list was not available on opening night, but the music references rock ’n’ roll of the ’60s and today, yet it’s diverse in style, and a number of the songs are memorable. Harold is a novice guitar player, and passion for music — from him, from Daphne’s musical theater background and Mr. McClam’s connection to La traviata — is an important theme.
All of the performances are marvelous (as for the two local actors, Coffee brings us to tears several times and Organ is adorably goofy and affecting), but the show is held together by Somers. He’s consistently engaging as the narrator, and humorously morphs into other small parts, such as the sisters’ mother and a fortuneteller.
Most poetically for a narrative that deals with these faint lights in the cosmos — the ones called humans — the characters’ stories climax as the famous New York blackout of 1965 begins, as if being in the dark helps them see the light.
Paul Toben’s lighting design adds dimension in the final scene, which could be overly sentimental if the writing and performances weren’t so honest. It’s a stage moment that beautifully encompasses the complexity of, to bring up another theatrical cliché that is anything but trite in these hands (and serves as the title of Joey’s ill-fated play), The Human Condition.