Fasten your seatbelts and make sure all tray tables are in their upright and locked positions, because you're in for a bumpy ride at the Beckett Theatre with Plane Crazy, Suzy Conn's high-sighted entry in the New York Musical Theatre Festival.
It's both heartening and unfortunate that Conn has more on her mind than just providing a groovy kitschfest: The show, which is set in 1965, examines not only a transitional period in commercial air travel, but also the Women's Movement and the coarsening of mass-market advertising. This allows Conn a sky full of options, but though she attempts to explore them all in turn, the show never stops taxiing but also never actually takes flight.
That's partially because, in addition to more social consciousness than you can shake a copy of The Feminine Mystique at, Conn also wants it to strictly adhere to musical-theatre tradition. She's crammed into this already overstuffed show the story of a young woman who wants to upend management attitudes toward workers and women, a twisting-turning romantic entanglement, enough wise cracks for a perky second-banana dancing comic, and so on.
So, for the three main characters, all of whom are stewardesses (or "stews," in airline lingo) on Venus Airlines, we get one who's a romantic, headstrong feminist (Allison Spratt), and our main character, determined to modernize the airline; another who's a vivacious man-chaser (Sarah Mugavero), who takes up with a pilot (Richard Todd Adams) and must deal with some unexpected baggage; and a third, an opportunistic sexpot (Hollie Howard) who typifies the new wave of near-erotic marketing that Venus's president (William Broderick) allows his advertising guru (Kevin Kraft) to employ.
And then what? And then nothing. Despite the breadth of content, this is an extremely thin show; Conn has too many ideas and too little stage time (even with two and a half hours) to fully develop them. As such, most of the character numbers seem to be supernaturally superficial - you don't need to know anything about the show to guess who sings "I Wanna Get Married," "Mr. Right Now," or "Thirty Is A Dirty Word." Others, like "I Need You," "When You Chase A Dream," and "Listen To My Heart" might be less immediately intuitive, but are no less generic in their sentiments.
Unsurprisingly, the more memorable and effective songs are the more specific ones: The opener, "Plane Crazy," is a run-of-the-mill "let's introduce everyone" number, but it's got the right sound and the right style, especially as swiveled and bopped by musical director Seth Weinstein and his band; two other numbers, "Hey Baby," about lecherous male passengers who wants more than more coffee from the stews, and "Turbulence," relating Janet's love life to rocky air travel, are equally effective. (Less satisfying is the first-act finale, "The Mile High Club," which is not as racy as it sounds, despite Randy Slovacek's sexily frenetic choreography.)
While Howard stands out for her comic inventiveness, the 16-member cast is uniformly strong. And one must applaud director Jamibeth Margolis for her fluid pacing and Technicolor vision for bringing the 60s to life; this is a truly zippy production that must rank among the most elaborate yet seen at NYMF. Jason Lee Courson's strategic set pieces, Jess Belsky's lights, and Michael Karst's graphic designs result in plenty of eye-popping stage pictures, thanks in no small part to the cyc-filling projections that immediately set every scene before a word has been spoken.
Special mention must also be made of Elizabeth Payne's costumes, a neon-soaked array of tantalizingly short skirts that evoke the style and sexual attitudes of the 1960s better than most of Conn's writing. Then again, how could Payne's job not be easier - by limiting her focus, she keeps the final outcome forever in easy reach. Should Conn aspire to keep Plane Crazy flying, that's something she too should keep in mind.
New York Musical Theatre Festival