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Fly by Night

New musical feels like an unironic throwback to that era's wistful-quirky off-Broadway tuners. Nonetheless it's a crowdpleaser that should be a local hit, as well as a viable future prospect for other mid-sized venues.

Daphne - Rachel Spencer Hewitt
Mr. McClam - James Judy
Harold McClam - Ian Leonard
Narrator - Wade McCollum
Crabble - Michael McCormick
Joey Storms - Keith Pinto
Miriam - Kristin Stokes

The line between cute and cutesy is walked with wobbly gait in “Fly by Night.” Set in 1965, this new musical feels like an unironic throwback to that era’s wistful-quirky off-Broadway tuners, which winked at moon/june/spoon conventions while essentially playing them straight. Its character types willfully thin and sweetness skin-deep, this is nonetheless a crowdpleaser that should make Bill Fennelly’s premiere staging a local hit, as well as a viable future prospect for other mid-sized venues.

An all-too-omnipresent Narrator (Wade McCollum, amusingly essaying myriad eyeblink support roles as well) croons vaguely about that “instant moment” — you know, when love hits your eye like a big pizza pie, or anything else important happens — in a title song before launching into our central triangle drama. It takes place over exactly one year’s course, during which two South Dakota sisters resettle in Brooklyn, where one nebbishly regular guy falls for both.

Daphne (Rachel Spencer Hewitt) arrives determined to become a musical theater star, while reluctantly dragged-along sis Miriam (Kristin Stokes) is a simple-life gal with an astronomy jones expressed in the treacly “Stars I Trust.” Latter is happy slinging diner hash, while former duly gets her big break — or will whenever indecisive Broadway baby Joey (Keith Pinto) stops rewriting his overblown debut show. Sandwich maker and amateur songwriter Harold (Ian Leonard) gets engaged to Daphne well before meeting Miriam, who’s already been told by a gypsy fortune teller (McCollum again) that she’ll meet the man of her dreams, but their romance will be doomed. Meanwhile, the Narrator narrates…a lot, often coyly stopping the narrative to interject or upset its chronology.

Crediting rising Kim Rosenstock, Will Connolly and Michael Mitnick as co-authors (she presumably wrote the book, latter duo the songs), “Fly by Night” is self-conscious fluff that is sometimes genuinely charming, especially toward intermission when Daphne’s mortification at falling for her sibling’s beau kicks in.

The collaborators succeed more at such comic material than the serious stuff, which (whether scripted, melodic or lyrical) leans toward “instant” forgettable cliché. Despite agreeable perfs, the characters here are one-dimensional at best, yet potential genre satire is sidestepped. Two lonely-father-figure roles (James Judy, Michael McCormick) hit the same monotonous note over and over.

The story culminates during the Northeast Blackout of 1964, a mass electrical failure that allows our crazy-kid protags to gaze wonderingly at that great big starry universe-sky they’re but teensy parts of. Nimbly staged “Fly by Night’s” affectlessness is itself affected, a nostalgic cut-and-paste borrowed (like Joey’s show-within-the-show) from more inspired predecessors.

Yet audiences comforted rather than off-put by that pervasive deja vu may well find the whole disarmingly greater than its second-hand parts.

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Fly by Night

Lucie Stern Theater, Palo Alto, Calif.; 425 seats; $69 top

Production: A Theaterworks presentation of a musical in two acts by Will Connolly, Michael Mitnick and Kim Rosenstock, conceived by Rosenstock. Directed by Bill Fennelly.

Creative: Set, Dane Laffrey; costumes, Tanya Finkelstein; lighting, Paul Toben; musical direction/orchestration, Michael Pettry; sound, Jeff Mockus; stage movement, Fennelly, Kikau Alvaro; casting, Leslie Martinson, Alan Filderman. Opened, reviewed July 16, 2011. Running time: 2 HOURS, 40 MIN.

Cast: Daphne - Rachel Spencer Hewitt
Mr. McClam - James Judy
Harold McClam - Ian Leonard
Narrator - Wade McCollum
Crabble - Michael McCormick
Joey Storms - Keith Pinto
Miriam - Kristin Stokes

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