Everything seemed fizzy and happy at intermission Friday at the Jungle Theater's opening of "Fly by Night." As the musical's narrator, Jim Lichtscheidl was even more confidently amusing than usual. The story of ordinary folks crashing into each other's lives in 1965 New York was quirky, self-aware and innocent. And as the central character, pop singer Chris Koza (making his theatrical debut) totally charmed us.
How would this little indie musical, sprinkled with cosmic stardust of the Thornton Wilder variety, work itself out in the second act? And would we walk into the warm, full-moon-lit night as giddy as we were in the intermission twilight?
The answers, in order, are: clumsily and no.
"Fly by Night," written by three Yale MFAs of great promise, loses its way in an ambitious overreach of its capacities as a play. Drawing together the random strings of six disparate lives during New York's famous blackout takes our eye off the quiet and poignant love triangle involving Harold (Koza) and sisters Daphne (Royer Bockus) and Miriam (Leah Anderson).
They alone matter to us. The other three folks in the show are clutter. (That's not a comment on the actors, just the roles.)
Lichtscheidl introduces us to the short back stories of Harold, a sandwich maker who'd like to be a performer, and South Dakotans Daphne, an aspiring Broadway star, and Miriam, who is content as a waiter.
Lichtscheidl's Narrator reminds us that there is an invisible fabric woven into our lives that brings us together in serendipitous ways we can't imagine. That's how these three orbiting kids found one another. Beware the stars and omens — but not so much that your life becomes paralyzed by coincidence, he seems to say.
"Fly by Night" affirms the direction in which artistic director Sarah Rasmussen is taking the Jungle — with newer work that entertains easily yet has an underlying story of relationships.
She directed this piece, which opened in New York in 2014, with a clear eye about which characters are most real (Harold and Miriam) and those who skew toward caricature. Bockus' Daphne, for instance, is a self-absorbed ditz plucked from sitcom land. She's funny and never dramatic only for its own sake. But she stands starkly against the earnest Harold and Miriam.
Musically, the play kicks up poppy earworms that land with sweet lightness, particularly when Koza sings and plays guitar. Mark Christine leads a four-piece combo that tightly supports every moment, as the band is tucked beneath Joe Stanley's multilayered set (a bit clunky, frankly, by Jungle standards).
So what happened in that soggy second act that turned a joyous intermission optimism sour? To spend too much time explaining that would be to make the same mistake made by the creators — Kim Rosenstock, Will Connolly and Michael Mitnick. At 90 minutes, shaken of the fluff, "Fly by Night" would be irresistibly charming. It's that extra hour that chills the glow.
Graydon Royce is a longtime Star Tribune theater critic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.