"Everything is absolutely Disney," sings an army of suburban automatons early in Flight of the Lawnchair Man. They couldn't be more right. Like a traditional Disney feature, this musical by Peter Ullian (book) and Robert Lindsey-Nassif (score) is colorful, broad, and occasionally moving. And like Disney movies of more recent vintage, it never seems to know when enough is too much.
It's been a turbulent trip to New York for Lawnchair Man, which passed through a trio of one-acts called 3hree six years ago and, more recently, a workshop production at Goodspeed Musicals. What's now playing at 37 Arts as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival is a frantic and lurching 90-minute spectacle that, bounce and breeziness aside, never successfully sets aside its pocket-musical background.
It's possible that in its original form, the story of Jerry Gorman, who takes flight with the help of a lawnchair and 400 helium balloons, was a whimsical trifle capable of charming with its inherent quirkiness and tiny roster of offbeat characters. But expanded to a full evening, those tiny tablets of artificiality quickly become an incapacitating overdose.
Only Jerry (Christopher Sutton), a 34-year-old "mildly dyslexic," Wal-Mart-employed daydreamer living in Passaic, New Jersey, seems real, his longing to take to the skies despite all the things keeping him earthbound (including the lack of a pilot's license) a concern nearly everyone can relate to. Lawnchair Man flies as long as it sticks closely with Jerry, whom Sutton plays with a boyish, unassuming warmth, through his travails in finding himself to his eventual success as an unconventional aviator.
But as everyone else is rendered in jarringly caricaturish hues, this doesn't happen as often as it should. His mother (Susan Jacks) is a harpy, so concerned about Jerry's growing up and get serious about his life she discards everything she considers even slightly immature (including his prized model airplanes). His girlfriend Gracie (Donna Lynne Champlin), an ingratiating toll collector on the New Jersey turnpike, wants Jerry to capitalize on his imagination and live the life he wants. His pilot friend Big Jack (Patrick Boll) is a slick, smarmy success, while his attendant stewardess (Danette Holden) is a typical blonde ditz.
Lindsey-Nassif's songs are frequently along the same lines, with the opening number "Everything is Perfect in Passaic" establishing the locale without the slightest hint of sincerity or crushing ennui Jerry hopes to escape, and facile entries like Gracie's "Have a Nice Day," "Left" for Jerry's disastrous flying lesson, and a trio of numbers for Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, and Leonard Da Vinci, add little of substance to a story about dreams dreamed and eventually attained.
It's when Lindsey-Nassif focuses on those dreams that the show is most effective, and Jerry's scattered soul-searching numbers, "Who is Jerry Gorman?" and "I Want to Fly," and "The Air is Free" for a desperate Gracie facing off against the monolithic FAA, reveal the depth of power and emotional insight that would lead anyone to stick with this show for six years. Ullian's utterly straight-faced book, a bit elevated but witty and knowing, connects more easily to these songs than the ones that sound like they were written on autopilot.
Everything, though, is expertly staged and choreographed by Lynne Taylor-Corbett, who makes virtues from the songs' molded-plastic missteps. (Her solution for an impossible sequence recreating the French film The Red Balloon, from which Jerry derives his aeronautic inspiration, is particularly inventive.) Walt Spangler's sets and costumes (likely inherited from the Goodspeed run) are as numerous as they are imaginatively conceived.
The performances seldom match these achievements, usually giving into the cartoonish reality of the characters rather than the truth of the moment. Aside from the always-convincing Sutton, the exception is Champlin: Thankfully returning to the realm of humanity after her dreadful stint in John Doyle's Sweeney Todd, she brings a touching pathos to the go-nowhere Gracie that transcends the dumb-broad stereotyping she has apparently been encouraged to utilize.
Her spectacular belting at the end of "The Air is Free" doesn't hurt either, and is one of the few times Flight of the Lawnchair Man truly soars. The reason is obvious: A good performer is allowed to do what she does best, free of all affectation. If it works so well for Champlin, might it not for the rest of the show, too? While one suspects we'll never learn the answer to that question, that would seem to be the best way to get Flight of the Lawnchair Man off the ground before six more years pass.
Flight of the Lawnchair Man