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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Take Flight Sputters, Then Soars

Take Flight
Jenn Colella and
Michael Cumpsty

It is a great pleasure to report that there is a new reason for hope and excitement for devotees of the American musical theatre. It can now be seen across the Hudson and about 80 minutes south from the isle of Manhattan in Princeton, New Jersey, in the form of McCarter Theatre's American premiere production of Take Flight, a must see new musical with book by John Weidman and music and lyrics by David Shire and Richard Maltby, Jr.

There is still much work that remains to be done if this ambitious, wildly uneven piece is to achieve its full potential. Yet, even in its present imperfect state, Take Flight's book and lyrics boast uncommon literacy, intelligence and wit. The gorgeous and lively traditional music may well be the best that David Shire has written to date.

Take Flight is an original, sophisticated, complex jigsaw puzzle of a musical celebrating the daring and spirit of American aviation pioneers, Wilbur and Orville Wright, Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart. The three thematically linked stories are alternatively depicted, although a few scenes are presented simultaneously.

The Wright Brothers, whose occupation is the manufacture and retail sale of bicycles, are seen correcting Otto Lilienthal's mistaken mathematical theories concerning flight, and refining their design and materials through trial and error on the sand dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1900 and 1903. During this period, they progress from glider development to the moment of the first engine driven, sustained and controlled human flight. This is the only one of the three stories with an internal chronological structure.

Throughout, we see Charles Lindbergh in the midst of his historic trans-Atlantic flight in 1927. During his flight, in a state of delirium brought on by exhaustion, Lindbergh recalls his introduction to flying and his efforts to obtain the resources and support to undertake it.

The most extended narrative is that concerning aviatrix Amelia Earhart. It begins in 1928 when publisher George P. Putnam recruits her to be the first woman to fly across the Atlantic. However, Earhart is only a glorified passenger on that flight. Despite ensuing fame and success, she believes her glorification is fraudulent. In 1932, the determined Earhart becomes the first woman to make a transatlantic solo flight. Putnam, who becomes her publisher and manager, is deeply in love with Earhart. Her true love is flying. However, she eventually yields to Putnam's proposal reluctantly after he agrees to facilitate her wish to pilot an around-the-world flight (1937).

The authors (perhaps a bit too neatly) emotionally link the three stories by depicting the Wright Brothers, Lindbergh and Earhart as being underachievers whose love of flying ignited a spark within them that led to extraordinary accomplishments.

The early going is heavy and insufficiently involving. It feels presentational as Weidman and his collaborators seem to be sacrificing fully fleshed-out scenes and characterizations in order to cram us full of historical information. In retrospect, the problem may be one of tone. It was not apparent to me until the beginning of the second act that Take Flight, its underlying seriousness notwithstanding, is an exhilarating vaudevillian romp through the history of American pioneer aviation. While the story of Amelia Earhart and George Putnam is told in largely conventional musical theatre terms, the other stories have a satiric touch and are blessed with extended, bright vaudeville-style musical sequences which teem with theatrical life.

Although the stories are told with considerable historic accuracy, the emotions, character and words of the pioneers are, to a considerable degree, derived from the minds of the collaborators. This is never more so than in the creation of Take Flight's Wilbur and Orville. None of their conversations were ever published for prosperity. Based on the observations of some of their contemporaries that they each had a good sense of humor, and a photograph of their Ohio workshop which shows the presence of a mandolin, the authors have drawn the brothers as a witty pair of dry and wry humorists and put a mandolin in Orville's hands. A sublime dividend of this approach is the delightful vaudeville-style song, "The Funniest Thing."

Orville:

Well, isn't it just
The funniest thing
Make one little change
To the shape of the wing
And the glider stays up
Like a robin in spring
Yes it hovers and flits
And I'm telling you it's
Just the funniest thing.

Wilbur:

Life leads you along
The funniest path
I'm in need of some sleep
I'm in need of a bath
But I'm staying up nights
To finish some math
I'm testing my wits
Well, I'm telling you it's
Just the funniest thing.

Orville:

Well, we didn't get in
To Harvard or Yale
All I learned in school
Was how to fail
Now I'm figuring out
A quadratic detail
Every piece of it fits
And I'm telling you it's
Just the funniest thing.

(I've omitted counterpoint lyrics in the above duet. The counterpoint enhances the lyrics in performance, but is difficult to follow on the page.)

A major highlight of Take Flight is an extended vaudeville scene replete with songs portraying Lindbergh's efforts to make his historic flight, along with the efforts and flights of other aviation pioneers. Although there is tragedy contained herein, it is the joy and exuberance of devil may care Jazz Age pilots that prevails. David Shire's music here captures the joy of that period's jazz band dance music.

The partnership and bumpy romance of Earhart and George Putnam is so intertwined with her career that Putnam joins the three aviation pioneers as a principal protagonist. Although more standard in its presentation, it is never jarring in supplying a tonal alternative to the other narratives. There are several beautiful soaring melodies in the score, a couple of which are beautifully sung by Amelia (Jenn Colella) and George (Michael Cumpsty). Cumpsty nicely projects the stolid supplicant to Colella's likeable and interesting, but romantically disinterested, object of desire.

Stanton Nash (Wilbur) and Benjamin Schrader (Orville) are delightful as the dour and seriously comic pair who are similar and dissimilar to one another in interesting ways. Claybourne Elder is a handsome and dashing Lindbergh and he sings with powerful ease.

The members of the uniformly excellent ensemble each play multiple, often featured roles. Director Sam Buntrock, who directed the first production of Take Flight at London's Menier Chocolate Factory, is back at the helm for this McCarter production. He has elicited solid performances from the entire cast. With the help of David Farley's imaginatively designed sets, which include representations of flying machines, Buntrock has kept the complex action flowing smoothly and clearly. While Farley's sets are not lavish, they never appear to be skimpy. The particularly beautiful and witty orchestrations (for a nine-piece orchestra) are by David Shire.

Take Flight rocks. The melodious and literate American musical is gloriously alive and kicking. Get over it.

Take Flight continues performances (Evenings: Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday (6/23) 7:30 pm/ Friday and Saturday 8 pm; Matinees: Saturday 3 pm/ Sunday 2 pm) through June 6, 2010, at the McCarter Theatre, Matthews Theatre, 91 University Place, Princeton, NJ 08540. Box Office: 609-258-5050; online at www.mccarter.org.

Take Flight book by John Weidman; music by David Shire: lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr.; directed by Sam Buntrock

Cast
Amelia Earhart...................................Jenn Colella
Charles Lindbergh......................Claybourne Elder
Wilbur Wright....................................Stanton Nash
Orville Wright...........................Benjamin Schrader
Don Hall, others...........................William Youmans
George Putnam...........................Michael Cumpsty
Burke, others..................................Price Waldman
Ray Page, others..................................Bobby Daye
Banker, others...............................Todd A. Horman
Brenda, others..................................Marya Grandy
Gladys, others.................................... Linda Gabler
Myra, others.........................Carey Rebecca Brown


Photo: T. Charles Erickson


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- Bob Rendell



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