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‘Bittersweet but charming’

Posted: November 17th, 2017 | Arts & Entertainment, Theater Reviews, Top Story | No Comments

By Jean Lowerison

Harold McClam (Weston Bennett) is a sandwich-maker in New York who spends an extraordinary amount of time trying to write a song about sea turtles.

Meanwhile, in South Dakota, Daphne (Tara Brown-Sampson) is a perky, ambitious girl who wants to be a Broadway star and is plotting a move to New York. Mom says she can take the Chrysler as long as she also takes her sister Miriam.

(l to r) Catie Marron, Tara Brown-Sampson and Michael Van Allen in a group hug (Photo by Vanessa Dinning)

Miriam (Catie Marron) is perky like her sister, but unlike Daphne doesn’t want to be an actress. She’s an astronomy nerd, and content to be a waitress. Before they leave, Miriam talks to her deceased father, who assures her that we are made of stars and “you’re connected to everything and always will be.”

Harold, Daphne and Miriam will meet, triangulate and form the nucleus of “Fly by Night,” a bittersweet but charming 2015 musical making its local premiere through Dec. 10 at Coronado Playhouse.

“Fly by Night,” conceived by Kim Rosenstock and written by Will Connolly, Michael Mitnick and Rosenstock, jumps around in time and is billed as a “metaphysical musical.” In this case, that means that all of these characters are looking for connection — and they all seem to feel that “I need more.”

Our guide in this search for meaning will be the Narrator, wonderfully played by Michael Van Allen, who also morphs into several other characters along the way, including the girls’ mom, a hoot of a Gypsy and a few Broadway producers Daphne must deal with.

Also along for this musical search for self is Harold’s father Mr. McClam (John Craig Johnson), who is stuck in the past — missing his deceased wife Cecily — and now spends too much time listening to “La Traviata,” the operatic event that brought them together all those years ago.

Playwright Joey Storms (Andrew Paiva), one of those writers who never really finishes a script but keeps changing it (I can identify), will meet Daphne at an audition (another one where she fails to land a part). She calls his script “worse than garbage.” Could she be his muse?

And Crabble (Thomas Fitzpatrick), Harold’s deli owner boss, feels stuck in his “mayonnaise, meat, cheese ‘n lettuce” existence when he’d rather be an air traffic controller like he was during the war.

“Fly by Night” is an odd bird as musicals go. Set in 1964 and 1965, it’s a creature of those self-actualization pre-hippie years before Vietnam took over our consciousness (and conscience) and pushed us into active protest mode. These folks aren’t angry about anything; they just “want more.”

They are familiar characters with recognizable problems, made engaging by the superb performances of these actors (many of whom are new to both the Playhouse and me).

Bennett’s sandwich-maker Harold may be diffident, sweet and unsure of himself, but his high, beautiful falsetto is anything but that. I could listen to that voice all night.

His dad, on the other hand — Johnson’s Mr. McClam — is the saddest character, spending his time thinking (maybe even living) in the past.

Brown-Sampson’s Daphne is as determined as Marron’s Miriam is contented, and both have that big Broadway sound that works well in this show.

Fitzpatrick’s Crabble even has a crabby stance in his deli. He’s also a hoot to watch.

But they will be both discombobulated and brought together by the great blackout of ’65, which left much of the East Coast without power for 13 hours. (Funny how recent history makes that seem like a walk in the park.)

The conversation is familiar and often funny, the songs of the sort that create long-lasting earworms, the messages (if you want it, go get it, and in the end, we are all connected) worth considering one more time.

In a switch from usual practice, music director Emily Awkerman’s mighty band of four is onstage throughout, almost becoming characters in their own right.

Karl Bunker’s simple, all-purpose set design works well, and sound and lighting are well handled by Caitlin LaMar and Josh Olmstead, respectively.

Director Manny Bejarano’s direction and his fine cast keep these characters real and away from the stereotypes they could easily become, and the show from seeming too long.

Only the Playhouse’s less-than-cushy seats betray the 2 ½-hour runtime.

“Fly by Night” provides a lovely night in the theater and the show is a welcome addition to the list of American musicals.

— Jean Lowerison is a long-standing member of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle and can be reached at infodame@cox.net.

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