Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Review - Fly By Night - Jungle Theater - One of the Good Ones - 4.5 Stars

If you like your musicals old-fashioned and uncomplicated, with catchy tunes and amusing characters, with plenty of love to go around and just a dash of reality thrown in, then the Jungle Theater’s regional premiere of the new musical Fly By Night is the show for you.  The show’s non-linear storytelling or the killer house band backing up the performers might trick you into thinking the whole thing is a lot less traditional than it actually is.  The story is set in the ever-more distant past of the early 1960s, specifically the year between November 9, 1964 and November 9, 1965 - which is a weird thing for me to type because I realize I was a toddler at the time.

“Believe it or not, this is not the worst part of Miriam’s night.”

(Sure the African-American civil rights movement was in full swing, the Vietnam War was entering into its second and much bloodier decade, the women’s rights movement was beginning its next big phase, and the gay rights movement was just a few years off, but don’t trouble yourself with any of that.  This is New York City, so “white people involved in theater” is still a fairly important and homogeneous thing - and that’s the world around which this story revolves. An old-fashioned musical sensibility fits right in. To its credit, the Jungle has cast two actors of color in roles where other theaters would (and have) put a white face, and it’s a non-issue. In fact, it’s a relief and most welcome.  It’s not a spoiler to say “Google November 9, 1965” and you’ll know the bit of history this musical does want to play off of - but that happens late in the action.)

“I’m a mess, and so is ‘The Human Condition,’ especially the fourth act.”

[Fair warning, the length of this review got away from me - if “well-produced new romantic musical comedy” is all you need to hear, by all means go, you won’t regret it.  Skip the next four paragraphs if you don’t care about plot/characters; skip the next six after that if you don’t need to know the many and various reasons I enjoy each member of the cast (because I do, all of ‘em); and if you’re not likely to be troubled by the lopsided gender politics of the storytelling that drove me a bit crazy and kept this from being an outright five star lovefest, then you can skip the rest of the review below that as well.  Jungle Theater Artistic Director Sarah Rasmussen has chosen a sweet, clever, heartfelt, funny script full of catchy tunes (one of which is still stuck in my head) performed by endearing characters.  She’s built an ensemble of ridiculously talented actors whose different skill sets all mesh perfectly, and backed them up with a creative team who give them all a dream sandbox in which to play. A random stranger sitting next to me who dreaded that he’d accidentally walked into a musical, which he normally avoids, was a total convert by intermission. Fly By Night is nearly impossible to resist - I was almost completely seduced myself.  If that’s all the convincing you need, get a ticket.  If you want to know more, I’ve got plenty of that below…]

“In order to reach the guitar, we must first attend a funeral.”

Fly By Night trades focus among three primary characters - rewinding and then moving in on key moments from different angles until we know the full context of how each of them got to the place they are, what they want, what (or who) stands in the way of their getting it, and then the twists and turns that keep spinning the story forward (and back) in new directions. There’s Daphne (Royer Bockus), a young woman who’s had all the lead roles in the community theater productions in her South Dakota hometown, so it’s time to head off and seek her fortune as an actress in New York City.  Accompanying Daphne for moral (and financial) support is her sister Miriam (Leah Anderson), who, to be honest, is perfectly happy being a waitress in a small town, but mom wants her to finally get out of the house.  While Daphne toils in a coat and shoe store to make ends meet as she also hits the audition circuit, looking for her big break, Miriam is deliriously happy working in a New York greasy spoon diner. 

“Last night I got a sign from the universe through your hair dryer.”

The third point of this love triangle (because, it’s a musical, of course there’s a love triangle) is Harold (Chris Koza). Discovering his mom’s old guitar in a closet after her funeral, Harold’s love of music and songwriting is ignited. It’s easier than dealing with his grief-stricken father Mr. McClam (James Detmar) who retreats into memories of his first date with his late wife at the opera La Traviata, to the point where he can’t leave the house without taking his portable phonograph with him. Harold also has to juggle a day job of his own, making sandwiches for the ceaselessly cross (and hilarious) owner of the joint, Crabble (Joy Dolo).

“Imagine you’re singing this song to a pony.”

Just as Harold and Daphne’s relationship starts to pick up steam, she catches the eye of a playwright named Joey Storms (Joshua James Campbell). Joey values Daphne’s honesty and claims her as his muse, hiring her for a new play he’s writing just for her - which of course tends to cut into her time for Harold.

“I’m full of surprises.”

Overseeing the many threads of this story is the Narrator (Jim Lichtscheidl), who also plays a variety of supporting roles both large and small, including a fortune teller, who sets Miriam on the path to find her true love - which turns out to be Harold.  Awkward.  The fortune teller also has some less than promising things to say about Miriam’s prospects for a long, happy life.  (I should be in the bag for this musical.  I really should.)

“When that star died, it didn’t disappear - it reappeared.”

Jim Lichtscheidl is a delight as the Narrator - as well as his rogues gallery of supporting characters.  The show wouldn’t work half as well without him pulling the strings and populating the world in which the other characters live with his own particular gift of comic timing. (Jim played a key role in the very first script of mine that ever got produced in Minneapolis, some twenty-odd years ago now - before he became a Guthrie regular, started performing in London’s West End, and turned into, well, “Jim Lichtscheidl.” It’s been great watching his career blossom, the guy’s amazing.)

“I wasn’t sure you’d get the metaphor.”
“Of course I did.  It was really obvious.”

I also have a soft spot for Joy Dolo, creating yet another larger than life character here in Crabble, longing for the days in World War II when she was an air traffic controller, now stuck making sandwiches without a plane in sight.  (Joy performed in the most recent script of mine produced in the Minnesota Fringe Festival, playing seven wildly different over the top characters so indelibly that even people who forgot or weren’t fans of the play LOVED Joy in it and remembered her.  She’s since done one cool project after another and is now, well, “Joy Dolo.”  One takes a weird kind of pride in seeing actors’ careers take off like that.  And it’s just lovely to see them both again, even if I’m just another guy in the audience this time.)

“Mayonnaise, meat, cheese, and lettuce.”

Wonderful seeing James Detmar on stage again, too.  (His chameleon-like, multi-character performance in Spring Awakening for Theater Latte Da still sticks in my head.)  Detmar takes a character in Fly By Night that has a danger of seeming repetitive and makes him compelling and sweet.  Given his acting and singing chops, I knew there must be a big moment coming for the character of Mr. McClam at some point, and I wasn’t disappointed.  It was a great showcase late in the game, and he really delivered.  Joshua James Campbell is someone else whose work I’ve really liked as both director (Failure: A Love Story) and actor (Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike).  He’s great here as Joey, a guy who wants to be more substantial than he’s probably capable of as both an artist and a person.  He’s an enjoyable fourth point in the romantic entanglements, turning a triangle into a bit of a rhombus or a trapezoid (they’re too odd to be a rectangle or a square).

“For worse… for poorer… in sickness… till death.”

Turns out the only people in the cast I’m not already familiar with are the three leads.  A love triangle only works if you’re rooting for all three of the characters involved, and between the script, songs and actors here, there’s a lot to root for. Leah Anderson and Royer Bockus playing the two sisters are two very different kinds of perfect.  Bockus’ Daphne is always belting for the rafters of the theater like any good wannabe actress should.  Anderson’s quieter but no less enthusiastic turn as Miriam finds the joy in everyday work. 

“I can’t feel awful by serving a waffle.”

Heck, even Daphne has a day job.  Sure, she isn’t stuck in it long but she’s not whining and moaning like most “artist” characters onstage (“why does no one recognize my genius? why do I have to do ‘normal person’ things?”) It’s why I can’t stand most plays about theater people.  But in this musical, Daphne does her job to pay the bills, and she stands up for herself when suffering the indignities of a life of auditions.  In fact, it’s only when she insults the play (after the director insults her “incorrect” body type) that playwright Joey becomes enamored of her.

“Apparently I was distracting the audience with my groans of despair.”

I’m a little ashamed to admit I wasn’t aware of local singer-songwriter Chris Koza before seeing him as Harold, especially since I have now developed a serious nerd crush on the man.  Apparently, cute guys who know how to sing and play the guitar are my kryptonite.  Plus, the guy can act.  He more than holds his own alongside all his powerhouse castmates.  (I’ll probably have to purchase and download a bunch of Koza’s original music just to get that damn turtle song from the show out of my head - not that there’s anything wrong with the turtle song, it’s just stuck on repeat in my brain.)

“Scientifically speaking, you’re connected to everything.”

And I haven’t even mentioned how great the band is - Music director Mark Christine out of New York also serving as conductor and playing the keyboards; Music consultant John Munson (of Semisonic) on bass; Dan Schwartz on guitar, and Richard Medek on percussion.  Pile onto that the crack design team embracing the period at the same time they’re supporting the time-skipping, multi-location storyline: Trevor Bowen (costumes), Barry Browning (lights), Sean Healey (sound), John Novak (props, plus stage manager keeping all these plates spinning), and Joseph Stanley (set).  There isn’t choreography per se, but Lichtscheidl is also listed as movement consultant (and I can still see in my mind’s eye, for instance, the whole cast suddenly becoming airplanes around a daydreaming Crabble.)

“Do you have any idea how many wonderful roles there are for women in theater?”

So with ALL that in its favor, why am I not just slapping five stars on Fly By Night and calling it a day?  The aforementioned lopsided gender politics of the storytelling. Fly By Night is the brainchild of Kim Rosenstock, who then collaborated with Will Connolly and Michael Mitnick in bringing it fully to life.  It’s not that the sisters’ roles aren’t good or substantial.  They’ve each got a lot of great material, both scripted and songs.  The multiple plot strands doubling back on each other make sure everyone gets equal time.  And the women have agency - up to a point.  Then the script keeps having the men in the story tell the women how they should feel, and how they should live their lives.  And the women agree.  And the script seems to have zero problems with that.  For that reason, a song of Daphne’s that would otherwise be my favorite, “I Need More,” instead kind of creeps me out, because Joey’s offering of it to Daphne in rehearsal is incredibly manipulative.  Even if she is realizing something important because of it, I also want her to hit him.  And don’t get me started on Harold convincing Miriam he knows how she feels better than she does, even as they’re both deciding to betray her sister.

“Honey, please, I know the sound of a man pretending to be a woman.”

Equally strange, one key female supporting role doesn’t exist, and three other female supporting characters are male roles.  Kudos to the Jungle production for having the vision to think, “Hey, Crabble doesn’t *need* to be a white dude. Doesn’t even need to be a dude. Joy Dolo’s great, let’s make the role for her.”  But the roles of Daphne and Miriam’s mother, and the pivotal scene stealer that is the fortune teller, are both played by the Narrator.  Hard as it is to set my love for Jim Lichtscheidl aside, why is the Narrator positioned in the script as a man?  There’s really only one joke (and it’s a doozy) that would potentially get lost if you allowed the Narrator to be a woman.  The Narrator also plays Daphne and Miriam’s late father, who both haunts and guides Miriam throughout the play, including at her pivotal moment of need at the play’s end.  But honestly, why dad, who's dead, rather than mom, who’s still alive?  And since the Narrator is some supernatural omniscient Our Town-ish Stage Manager figure anyway, why is it necessarily a male figure rather than say, a female one - like Harold’s late mother, and late wife to Mr. McClam, who casts such a long shadow over their half of the story? Why Miriam’s father but not Harold’s mother - dead but present, vs. dead but absent?  And yes, we don’t see it as much in theater, but there’s no prohibition against women pretending to be men onstage.  Why always men doubling as women instead?  None of this would bug me as much if the male love interests weren’t being allowed to tell the women how to feel.  I mean, I know it’s the early 1960s but really?  It’s 2017, so why are we telling this kind of story, in this way, now?

“Sometimes a busted broken clock is just a busted broken clock.”

Does any of that make the songs less catchy, or the play less funny or heart-tugging?  Does it make the production values less impressive?  Does it make the cast any less mind-bogglingly good?  No, no, and no.  It’s a beguiling package presented in an enchanting way.  I completely understand why people are drawn to Fly By Night.  There’s just a little nugget at the center of it all that still bugs me, much as I try to shrug it off and just enjoy. 

“Is that, like, with goats?”

Still, there’s also a part of me that just says “screw that reviewer guy’s qualms” and just go see Fly By Night.  There are so many half-baked, ill-conceived musicals out there, the better ones should get an audience, so we keep demanding the good stuff.  People this talented, doing work this good, really shouldn’t be missed.  You should go see and hear Fly By Night at the Jungle Theater for yourself.  (runs through July 23, 2017)

4.5 Stars - Very Highly Recommended

[L-R: Mr. McClam (James Detmar), Crabbie (Joy Dolo), Narrator (Jim Lichtscheidl), Daphne (Royer Bockus) and Joey Storms (Joshua James Campbell) - Background: Harold McClam (Chris Koza) - Photographer: Dan Norman]

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