From the beginning, when the onstage ghost light fizzles out with a comical “phht!,” it’s clear that “Fly by Night” is going to be a cleverly entertaining show.
But more than that, it’s a sweetly affecting and at times unsettling quasi-fairytale of lost and missed love, the nature of grief and the vagaries of fate. Add in a couple dozen captivating songs, a live, four-person band and a great cast, and the result is a truly beguiling new musical. It’s the centerpiece of TheatreWorks’ summer New Works Festival.
A collaboration among playwrights Kim Rosenstock (who conceived it, and whose “Tigers Be Still” recently opened to great acclaim at SF Playhouse) and Michael Mitnick with composer Will Connolly, “Fly By Night” takes place in New York in the months prior to the famous 1965 blackout there.
Shy Brooklyn boy Harold (Ian Leonard), a wannabe singer-songwriter, has a dead-end job in a sandwich shop. Daphne (Rachel Spencer Hewitt) is fresh from South Dakota and is ready for her Broadway debut. “I’m a star!” she declares overconfidently.
Harold’s lonely father (James Judy) is pining over the recent death of his wife and compulsively listening to a recording of “La Traviata,” which reminds him of her. (Judy’s heartfelt solo about her, “Cecily Smith,” is a show-stopper, one of several such numbers.)
Daphne and Harold meet and fall in love, so things look hopeful, at least for those two. And at least for a while.
But there’s Daphne’s cheerfully underachieving, wistfully stargazing sister, Miriam (Kristin Stokes). When Miriam receives a mystifying prophecy — and a dire warning — from a crazy gypsy, we’re forewarned: This is not a garden-variety romantic comedy.
The plot unfurls nonlinearly, its trajectory clear because a narrator (Wade McCollum, whose singing is as impressive as his acting) leads us through it, taking on several small and carefully delineated roles along the way, including the gypsy and the girls’ mother back in South Dakota.
In smaller roles, Michael McCormick as the crusty sandwich shop owner and Keith Pinto as a deluded playwright fill out a terrific ensemble. Bill Fennelly directs with both humor and sensitivity, accompanied by Michael Pettry’s fine musical direction.
In the manner of so many new works, the play’s a bit overlong, especially at the end. But a fortune teller would likely predict a very bright future indeed for this unassuming little charmer.
Presented by TheatreWorks
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
When: Tuesdays-Wednesdays 7:30 p.m., Thursdays-Fridays 8 p.m., Saturdays 2 and 8 p.m., Sundays 2 and 7 p.m., through Aug. 13
Contact: (650) 463-1960, www.theatreworks.org