Monday, July 30, 2007

Taking A Flight To See Take Flight (The Musical) - Review

Take Flight - Menier Chocolate Factory - London, UK

The Menier Chocolate Factory has been quickly establishing itself in London for churning out great productions of some classic musicals including Sunday in the Park with George and Little Shop of Horrors (both moved to the West End, Sunday moving to Broadway next season) out of their little space in the back of a gallery and restaurant. Since I missed seeing tick, tick, Boom and Sunday, I thought I would check out their latest production, a brand new musical called Take Flight, about the legends of aviation, The Wright Brothers, Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart and is produced and directed by the same team that just did the Sunday in the Park with George revival that was so lavished with awards and critics love.

The book is by John Wiedman who worked with Sondheim on Assasins, Pacific Overtures and the upcoming Bounce, the lyrics are by Richard Maltby Jr. who did Miss Saigon and created Ain't Misbehavin and Fosse, while David Shire (scores for films Zodiac, All the Presidents Men, Norma Rae) wrote the score, so Take Flight has got quite the pedigreed creators who are already quite established in the business. Which may be its problem.

First of all, Miss Saigon, upon later repeat viewing when I was no longer a teenager wowed by the helicopter, was not as great as I remembered it with pounding of overdramatic schmaltz, and Fosse was WAY overated and overpraised. Second, it interweaves the three separate stories/history lessons back and forth intercutting each other, kind of like Assasins but unfortunately, the stories of aviation don't interlink as well as they would like to, and even the themed links seem a bit of a stretch. While Sam Kenyon and Elliot Levey as Wilbur and Orville Wright (above) make the most of their (slightly) comedic roles (the best being "The Funniest Thing"), there really is no inherent drama to their story. They try and fail, they try and fail, realise the calculations they have been basing their airplanes on must be wrong, recalculate and finally figure out how to fly. When the big plot point is recalculation, there are problems, and the thought of being the first to fly in no way makes up for the earlier lack of drama.

The stories of Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart intertwine a little better, but mainly because it's the same story, only Amelia was trying to be the first woman to cross the Atlantic following Lindberghs journey, even to be nicknamed Lady Lindy (shown above when the press turns her into an icon, even back then). Michael Jibson as Lindbergh (centre below) and Sally Ann Triplett are amiable in their roles in a great cast of a great production of a musical still looking for its destination.

The score has some lovely moments that seem grander than the small Menier theatre would accomodate, and some simple and ingenious staging, especially when Amelia Earhart attempts her round-the-world flight or during the "The Funniest Thing" Wright Brothers number, but it all comes crashing down with moments like Amelia's lovelife that seems squeezed in from out of nowhere, and the Wright Brothers moments during Act 1 when they also seem interjected at random moments. Act 2 works a lot better (though my friend thought the opposite, liking the first act, and finding the second falling apart) and the rest of the cast, especially Ian Conningham and Christopher Colley in rotating roles are hilarious.

On a side note, it's funny that last week I watched My One and Only, which had a storyline about a pilot that was trying to be the first to fly from New York to Paris, which eventually Lindbergh won the recognition for. Plus the fact that I flew to London (for work) back and forth over the Atlantic over the weekend sort of made seeing Take Flight even more appropriate.
So alas, here in lies the problem. Another so-so musical. Performed marvelously by a great company. It's getting to be repetitive. It's nice when in this day and age, someone tries to write an original musical, one not based on a movie or strung together my a band/singer's music catalogue, but the team of Maltby Jr., Shire and Weidman have written a great history lesson set to music, but that has little emotional impact that pulls in my heart along with my brain. On the other hand, have a lot of older "classics" done the same? Oklahoma! was cute but didn't grab me as much as Cabaret, Rent or Spring Awakening did. Are more modern takes on musicals "better" or just what I personally like? And has the attempt at the modern musical been mostly failures because the balance of a great story with great songs that is both dramatic and funny enough an extremely difficult thing to write, especially when our current expectations are high for fully rounded stories with depth in characters, songs that are hummable and lyrics that are witty? Have most musical ever reached that level? (Well duh, of course, or else Spring Awakening wouldn't have been such a standout, or Ragtime, which Taking Flight reminded me of, except a much much lighter version). Take Flight seemed like a valiant attempt but doesn't quite get to the heights of a great musical, but I did enjoy it enough, and give them enough credit for trying. Maybe they just need to recalculate a bit?

Here's a couple of other reviews that seemed to hit the mark, although I think I liked it slightly more than they did, despite all the problems with the show.
- Variety
- The Daily Telegraph
- The Guardian
- The London Times

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