Whee! Here’s a breezy if not exactly breath-taking new musical that puts us right (or is it Wright?) up in the air with Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart and — you guessed it — the Wright brothers, Wilbur and Orville. The long-in-gestation (13 years according to some insider sources) cum work-in-progress project of long-time musical theater collaborators David Shire (music) and Richard Maltby Jr., (lyrics) and their “Take Flight” book writer John Weidman can now be welcomed officially to the USA.
It had its arguably premature birth at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London in 2007. The significant thing is that “Take Flight,” has remained, for better or worse, under the direction of Sam Buntrock. It is at the very least an addition to what is an increasingly rare genre: The truly original musical play, one that integrates a brand new, never heard before score with a brand new never seen on screen or read in print before musical book.
What a novelty it is after an upswing in new musicals this past season (certainly on Broadway) that, no matter how cleverly conceived or constructed, relied on a previously released concept album (“American Idiot”), the classic rockin’ roll song book (“The Million Dollar Quartet”), and a composer’s legacy (“Sondheim on Sondheim.”)
The question remains whether we are sent soaring into the wild blue yonder or are just left sitting in the hanger waiting to be lifted up courtesy of a team of musical theater pros. Weidman, whose past collaborations with Stephen Sondheim — “Pacific Overtures,” “Assassins,” and “Road Show” nee “Bounce” — seems ideally suited to a show that not only reflects his affection for historical subject material, but also his inclination for non-traditional, unrestricted narratives. But neither he nor Maltby and Shire have really succeeded in instilling any real dramatic urgency into any of the fragmented episodes that comprise their show.
We are grateful for the bright and lively characterizations of Stanton Nash, as Wilbur Wright and Benjamin Schrader, as Orville Wright who together offer some diverting moments, even a degree of daffiness as they relentlessly attempt to secure (in their defining song) a sense of “Equilibrium.” It was nice to be reminded that the Wright Brothers were poor students, high school dropouts who nevertheless had a vision and a plan to defy gravity.
A little turbulence is to be expected in a show that jumps between three separate stories and links them only fitfully. Because of our familiarity with the principal characters, we are obliged to wait (in vain) for a surprise or a twist that will keep us from drifting back into the clouds that embrace designer David Farley’s simple unit set. Within Farley’s minimalist creation and amongst various ladders and boxes that serve their various purposes, is the marvelously whimsical dangling or hovering contraptions that serve as planes. We probably should give director Buntrock at least partial credit for the musical’s most impressive imagery that is the appearance in 1900 of their flying machine at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
Perhaps I expected Buntrock to favor us with his flair for animation, used most impressively in his London/New York staging of “Sunday in the Park With George.” For the most part, I found his staging of “Take Flight” just perfunctory. This is especially disappointing considering the theme of aviation pioneering. After we get the picture that flight is a metaphor for life, we are still left wondering why we should care whether the tentative marital relationship between egoist non-pareil aviatrix Amelia Earhart (Jenn Colella) and publisher/partner George (Michael Cumpsty) succeeds or fails. Of course, she flies and it fails.
Colella asserts herself vocally and dramatically as the ambitious Earhart and that about says it all. Whether he is playing Hamlet or Henry Higgins, Cumpsty brings a dramatic heft to even a role as one-dimensional as this one. And what kind of empathy is generated for the most famous flyer of all time Charles Lindbergh (Claybourne Eldere), otherwise a famously anti-social, insufferable, unpleasant Nazi sympathizer? Charles, who was lauded for his solo trip to Paris in 1927, and Amelia, who tried and failed to fly around the world 10 years later, may have been obsessive compulsive trail blazers of the skies, but they are unfortunately duds in their cockpits.
For those of us who have been generally delighted if not particularly awed by the scores composed by Maltby and Shire — “Baby,” “Closer Than Ever,” “Starting Here, Starting Now” — to name their most familiar and popular, “Take Flight” once again reflects the team’s genial but rarely assertive scoring. I was more than willing to let Maltby, Shire, Weidman, and director Buntrock serve as air traffic controllers and to determine the best route by which we might see aspects of these extraordinary lives go musically up, up and away. But it just never happens, especially disappointing for one who would like to see life as a flight and as a musical.
— Simon Saltzman
Take Flight, Berlind Theater at the McCarter, 91 University Place, Princeton, 609-258-2787. www.mccarter.org. American premiere of new musical by Richard Maltby and David Shire with book by John Weidman. Sam Buntock directs. $20 to $65. Through Sunday, June 6.