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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Take Flight
Menier Chocolate Factory        Summer 2007

In the 1960s David Shire and Richard Maltby Jr provided, respectively, music and lyrics for a string of Off-Broadway musicals that set the pattern for the genre, though ironically their first real hit was Starting Here Starting Now (1977), a plotless compilation of songs from previous shows. (They've since had successful careers, together and apart, in Broadway and Hollywood)

Take Flight (book by Jerome Weidman) is another small-scale musical and, if accepted on that level, without expectation of anything flashier, can provide a thoroughly delightful evening.

The subject is early aviation, with the tales of three icons the Wright brothers, Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart - interwoven in a celebration of the wonder and adventure of flight.

The three stories are told in alternating scenes, coming together only when two or more of the characters are moved to sing the same song.

Lindbergh, driven as much by the opportunity to be alone in the sky as by love of flying, is seen somewhere in the twentieth hour of his transatlantic flight, hallucinating or remembering the events that led up to it.

The Wrights are watched as they methodically and sometimes comically plod through the theory and practice of aerodynamics in several trips to Kitty Hawk.

And Earhart, picked almost at random to be the front woman for a slightly fraudulent publicity stunt, catches the adventure bug and turns herself into a real flier.

(There are significant roles also for the ghost of pre-Wright experimenter Otto Lillienthal and Earhart's husband and sponsor George Putnam, while the rest of the cast doubles and triples as Everyone Else.)

The songs, as is typical of Maltby and Shire, are tuneful and witty without ever being really memorable, notable mainly for the inevitable unconscious echoes of Sondheim from time to time.

(The plot also has some structural similarities to Sondheim's Assassins, and one discovers in the programme notes that Weidman wrote the books to both.)

The best songs are Earthbound, a not-quite-love duet for Earhart and Putnam, Before The Dawn, the we're-not-beaten-yet group climax to the first act, and The Funniest Thing, a comic turn for the Wrights.

In a flashier production each of these, along with Back Of The Line, Lindbergh's fear that others will beat him to the prize, would be show-stoppers. But director Sam Buntrock seems deliberately to have kept them small, to sustain the generally modest and friendly tone of the show.

Michael Jibson captures both Lindbergh's boyish quality and his slightly eerie lone wolf nature, while Sally Ann Triplett shows us Earhart discovering her adventurous core as she goes along, and Sam Kenyon and Elliot Levey make the Wrights exactly the sort of semi-comic boffins who would plod their way to an extraordinary breakthrough.

It is their performances, more than the songs or much of the staging, that will stick in your mind.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of Take Flight - Menier Chocolate Factory 2007