After a run of successes and West End transfers (particularly the Olivier laden, Broadway bound and generally superb Sunday in the Park with George), expectations were high for the Menier Chocolate Factory’s brand new musical from Richard Maltby and David Shire. Take Flight is certainly an enjoyable show, often intelligent, and well worth seeing, but without it ever being superb, so it doesn’t quite live up to those high expectations.
It’s an ambitious show, with three distinct plots focusing on aeronautical endeavours, which never really blend together or give the sense of a truly cohesive show (until the very last minutes of the production anyway). As the title suggests it’s all about flying, striving for the impossible, a sort of feel good American parable (and it is a very American show in the Broadway tradition). We see the Wright brothers struggle to make the first powered flight in the early 20th Century (it lasted under a minute in the end), in the mid 1920’s Charles Lindbergh learns to fly and dreams of being the first person to cross the Atlantic solo by air, and in the 1930’s Amelia Earhart crosses the Atlantic, the first woman to do so, and strives for record after record. It’s all great and inspiring stuff (never mind Lindbergh baby or Earhart’s eventual fate) and is well represented in the jazz and Broadway standard music and lyrics. The problem may lie in the book, by sometime Sondheim collaborator John Weidman; he simply doesn’t fuse these interesting stories into a satisfying whole. It all seems rather fragmented, although what is in those fragments can be rather good, but each strand on its own is never enough. The musical clearly takes much inspiration from Sondheim’s works (like Weidman’s own work on Assassins, which showcases several thematically linked stories to far greater effect).
There are some fine tunes and clever lyrics here, with three particularly funny songs (again, very reminiscent of Sondheim, with direct stylistic links). One is a vaudeville number, which has Lindbergh asking for a bank loan to finance his plane, and a group of bankers comically lines up to reject him, the second is a comedy revue of the failed European challengers to Lindbergh, where the various nationalities are lovingly mocked (gesticulating Italians and camp Frenchmen etc). The other song introduces our fourth important character, a sort of cynical commentator, Otto Lilienthal (a 19th century German glider inventor/aviator), who tells us about the other pioneers whose dreams and lives have gone ‘pffft!’. Then of course there are the standard narrative songs, telling of hopes, dreams and loves, with the title song being the most effective of those.
Some people have said that a grand, video backed production (as the director and designer have done before) might help this show to soar, I don’t agree. The simple staging, with a travelling trunk, a step ladder and a gentle sand-bank, directed by Sam Buntrock and designed by David Farley (also Sunday in the Park’s director and designer respectively), is effective in creating a sense of the possibilities (and limits) of human endeavour exactly because it asks us to use our imaginations, no fluffy projected clouds for us (how can a pioneering flight ever be realistically presented onstage, perhaps it could be excitingly conjured, but never with much truth). It is also quite an intimate show (there are few big number), and the simplicity of the staging helped focus us on the emotions, story and characters onstage, big productions can take away from that.
The cast of 13 is universally excellent, with the brilliant and delightful Sally Ann Triplett leading the field as Earhart, with her husband played by Ian Bartholomew with great sensitivity, showing a touching love for his independent wife. The young Lindbergh is played perfectly as a loner and outsider by Michael Jibson, who is suited to such intense, troubled or isolated men (as in A Chorus Line and Brighton Rock). The Wright Brothers are portrayed by Sam Kenyon and Elliot Levey with comedy and emotional intensity, which pays off in their beautiful number ‘What Are We Doing Here?’. The eccentric Lilienthal is depicted by Clive Carter, who also brings comic value and gravitas to the role. The rest of the ensemble are most effective in the title number Take Flight, where they harmonise to great effect.
By the end of the show I was moved, as the promise of each of our heroes is fulfilled in the closing scene (we leave them at the height of their powers, leaving human frailty for another day). Seeing these miracles of human achievement, achieving feats which would have been thought near impossible only a generation earlier (and which I have personally experienced, although firmly as a passenger), an achievement we don’t marvel over or think about very much today (except in an environmental light), but which has totally changed the world we live in irrevocably, is inspiring. I’m not saying that Take Flight will enthuse you to great deeds, only that it will make you awed by the brave and perhaps foolish people who forged part of the world we live in today, who pushed the boundaries of convention. Take Flight is never going to be a populist hit, but it should have some limited life after the Menier (a new production off-Broadway in a few years perhaps).