Adam Chanler-Berat leads the cast of Fly by Night, directed by Carolyn Cantor, at Playwrights Horizons.
Adam Chanler-Berat leads the cast of Fly by Night, directed by Carolyn Cantor, at Playwrights Horizons.
(© Joan Marcus)

On November 9, 1965, at the peak of the afternoon commute, a massive blackout rippled across the Northeast, leaving millions in the dark and stranding half a million people underground in New York City's subway system. The creative team behind Fly by Night, the new musical now receiving its New York premiere at Playwrights Horizons, has dramatically set the climax of this tale during that blackout. We've come to rely so heavily on electricity in our everyday lives that such moments take on an air of psychic and spiritual significance, as if the universe is trying to tell us something.

While the show is dripping with serendipity and magic, Fly by Night actually raises more questions about the nature of the universe than it answers: Is everything fated, or are our lives just a series of random occurrences? Is coincidence merely the illusion of destiny? Happily, you get to ponder these deep questions while taking in a beautifully melodic score and an absolutely heartwarming story.

Harold McClam (Adam Chanler-Berat) is a musician living in New York City. He makes a living working in a sandwich shop owned by Crabble (Michael McCormick). Harold's mother is dead and while his lonely father, Mr. McClam (Peter Friedman), is just a subway ride away in Brooklyn, Harold rarely goes to see him. He's too busy pursuing Daphne (Patti Murin), an aspiring young actress from South Dakota who has caught the eye of hot young playwright Joey Storms (Bryce Ryness). Daphne lives in Queens with her superstitious waitress sister, Miriam (Allison Case). One day, Miriam receives from an old fortune-teller three Macbeth-like predictions that change her life forever. Or did they? Maybe, as the fortune-teller suggests, these things were always fated from the start.

Henry Stram sensitively narrates throughout, occasionally stepping into minor parts. Admittedly, I rolled my eyes when he first came onstage and said, "I never know quite how to begin," as if this thing weren't scripted. (Very little is left up to chance in the theater.) The convention of narrators in musical theater can be irritating and a little patronizing, but Stram won me over, making his lines feel unforced and spontaneous. Murin is hilarious, as are Chanler-Berat and Case. Their dialogue comes trippingly on the tongue, as if saying it were second nature.

Much of the credit for this can go to authors Will Connolly, Michael Mitnick, and Kim Rosenstock (who are credited as coauthors without any specialization of writing responsibilities). The script is a perfect balance of serious and self-deprecatingly funny.

The music, a jaunty folk-rock blend, strikes a similar chord: With an acoustic guitar strapped around his neck à la Stephen Lynch, Harold sings a driving rock anthem about a sea turtle. Much more seriously, Mr. McClam sings about how he met his late wife, Cecily. Friedman's touching and heartfelt interpretation left quite a large percentage of the audience in sniffles, all while the actor unflappably maintained a stoic dignity that is indelibly characteristic of the World War II generation.

Director Carolyn Cantor has put the music at the heart of the story by placing the four-piece rock band center stage. All of the action happens on kiva-like raised platforms (scenic design by David Korins) around the band as one rapid-fire scene leads into the next. This is not a script that moves in a perfectly chronological fashion, but thanks to Cantor's very clear direction, the time and place are never lost.

Lighting designer Jeff Croiter rises to the unique challenge of lighting a blackout with an audience-enveloping design that is truly beautiful. Paloma Young's period costumes have a modern fit and sensibility but also tell us that we are in the '60s.

There's a lot to like about this charming new musical, but be warned: Those who need finality and closure in their theater will not get that here. Sometimes, like in life, musicals don't have a tidy ending. They just stop, like a sudden blackout in the middle of rush hour.