Fly By Night, the Will Connolly-Michael Mitnick-Kim Rosenstock (who also conceived the enterprise) musical at Playwrights Horizons starts off cute as can be. Depending on your tolerance for cute-as-can-be musicals, you'll immediately warm to it or almost immediately turn a cold shoulder.
Since I'm among the types almost immediately inclined to give it the old cold shoulder, I advise others like me to hang in there. The second half of the two-act tuner backs sufficiently away from preciousness to become genuinely moving and even culminates in a spectacular plot-geared lighting effect by Jeff Croiter that's worth the wait.
To get the cuteness underway, a narrator (always reliable Henry Stram, who also takes on other brief parts) steps on to the stripped-down-to-levels set by David Korins and talks about an invisible world underlying the world we know. He quickly ties his abstract preface to a romantic triangle involving Brooklyn-born-and-mired Harold "I'm a nerd, too" McClam (Adam Chanler-Berat) and sisters Daphne (Patti Murin) and Miriam (Allison Case), who hail from South Dakota and are now striving in New York City.
(It's almost as if the plucky young women have poured over Ohio native Ruth McKenney's tales of coming to the wonderful town with her sis and then decided to inaugurate their own My Sister Eileen.)
Shortly after the siblings arrive because the former wants to be an actress and the latter wants to tag along, Harold and Daphne meet cute and fall for each other. They go so far as to become engaged. Then Harold, who's begun writing songs, and Miriam meet cute where she's waitressing and instantly fall for each other when they discover they can collaborate on Harold's song in progress about a sea turtle. The complications that arise from that unexpected bonding aren't so cute for the characters. The development serves as the tuner's dramatic romance-triangle thrust.
In a span of time beginning on November 9, 1964, when Harold's mom dies, and ending on November 9, 1965, when something of a completely different significance occurs, Harold and the sisters also interact separately or together with Harold's grieving, La Traviata-loving dad, Mr. McClam (Peter Friedman), with Harold's sandwich-shop-owner/boss Crabbie (Michael McCormick) and with playwright Joey Storms (Bryce Ryness), who's endlessly rewriting and rehearsing the musical in which Daphne has been cast.
The boy-meets-girls-boy-loses-girls-boy-gets-girl-in-the-singular-but-which-one story line lopes along with at least one character declaring to another "You're cute" until the November 9, 1965 date, which Joey announces will be his show's opening night. The last quarter of the action, which starts on that special date, is when developments get sorted, though not out-and-out happily.
That's when writers Connolly, Mitnick and Rosenstock conjure the magic they've been stalking from the get-go. What the three of them are getting at with the invisible-world talk not only lands but also soars. All along, Miriam has been rhapsodizing about the stars, and the creators, all apparently recent Yale School of Drama grads, finally see that the audience also gets to see stars in the best theater-illusion way.
The music of Fly By Night? Since credits for the work don't specify who wrote book, lyrics and music, it must be safe to assume Connolly, Mitnick and Rosenstock pooled their talents for all three tasks. What they've crafted is certainly serviceable, and there's plenty of it, but how closely a ticket buyer connects with Harold's ditty about a sea turtle depends again on an individual's cute-quotient intake. Nothing really falls short of nicely done, but when Daphne's number about wanting and deserving more turns up, musical mavens may flash on Luisa's singing about wanting more in The Fantasticks and suddenly find themselves also wanting more.
There's no wanting more from director Carolyn Cantor and cast. Murin is sweet and blonde-pretty and acts the loving sister with radiance. Chanler-Berat knows how to be nerdy but not so nerdy that he eventually deflects interest. Case is earnest, appealingly coltish and sings with verve. As the lanky and lovelorn playwright, Ryness demonstrates cunning ease. Stram is genially authoritative throughout.
Okay, maybe there is wanting more from the cast. Friedman and McCormick are musical vets who always command the stage when it's their time to shine. This outing, however, they're underused. McCormick mostly gets to chant about rote sandwich making while swinging a kitchen knife. Friedman, direct from his attention-getting appearance as the dispiriting father in PH's production of Will Eno's The Open House, arrives and departs intermittently as widower McClam. Luckily, he's given the best song in the score.
At the end of the day and at the end of the play, Fly By Night comes down to wanting less of some things and more of others. Still, it can boast about enough of what counts.