“Take Flight”

Menier Chocolate Factory, London • 26 August 2007 • 3:30pm
Music by David Shire. Lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr. Book by John Weidman.

Direction: Sam Buntrock. Musical Direction: Caroline Humphris. With Sam Kenyon (Wilbur Wright), Elliot Levey (Orville Wright), Michael Jibson (Charles Lindbergh), Sally Ann Triplett (Amelia Earhart), Ian Bartholomew (George Putnam), Clive Carter (Otto Lillienthal), Christopher Colley, Ian Conningham, John Conroy, Helen French, Edward Gower, Kaisa Hammarlund.

Given the amount of crap we’re subjected to at each and every corner these days, a show with such a high level of craftsmanship is a knock-out, no matter how flawed it is.

Simply put, Take Flight is the Assassins of aviation. It bears more than a passing resemblance to Assassins, actually. It ties together the three stories of the Wright Brothers, of Charles Lindbergh and of Amelia Earhart in a non-linear libretto that also uses a manner of balladeer in the person of Otto Lillienthal, the German inventor of gliding. Their common passion, of course, is flying.

The first act is the less successful of the two, as the quality of the development of the three stories and their level of “integration” is very uneven. But all starts to come together at the end of the first act in a beautiful song called “Before the Dawn”… and the second act is outstanding in its ability to stitch the various threads of narrative together and have everything come full circle. The show ends, with little respect for chronology but a strong sense of dramatic efficiency, on the Wright Brothers’ first successful attempt at flying one of their aircraft.

There is tremendous talent involved, and it feels in many ways miraculous that some people are still so literate in the art of writing a musical. The score is gorgeous, especially when it manages to get past the “Sondheim complex” that it exhibits from time to time. It is highly enhanced by Shire’s own orchestrations for an 8-piece orchestra and by his superb choral writing. The music frequently soars and is especially good at expressing longings and aspirations. There are a few very clever numbers in the second act, most notably a vaudeville-type song for the Wright Brothers called “The Funniest Thing.”

The lyrics are frequently funny, at times a bit a surprising, like when Maltby rhymes “Crusoe” with “do so” or when he writes that “Range means going far” (which is supposed to be comedic in context). And I wonder if any other lyric ever contained the phrase “pi square.” There’s also a line that goes “How can we be wrong? We’re the Wright Brothers!” which I saw coming from miles afar. But I guess they couldn’t help themselves.

Even if all the parts are not written with the same virtuosity, the level of acting is excellent. Particularly outstanding (and blessed with the best-written part) is Sally Ann Triplett. She sings wonderfully and develops her character very nicely. I have slight reservations about the actor who plays Lindbergh, Michael Jibson, last seen in the Sheffield A Chorus Line (playing Bobby). But maybe that’s because his character is a bit more enigmatic. The Wright Brothers are written like a Vaudeville act and they work together nicely, even if one of them, Orville, has slight problems with his singing, which is not always entirely in key.

I was also very impressed by Ian Bartholomew as George Putnam (Eaverhart’s husband). And I hardly recognised Clive Carter, who has aged a lot (and taken some weight) since I last saw him. He provides some excellent comic relief as Otto Lillienthal and he has the best song of the first act, “Pfffft!,” about the many failures of people who have tried to fly aircraft.

Sam Buntrock’s staging makes the most of the reduced space available given the subject matter of the show. The lighting, by David Howe, is particularly enchanting.

It is somewhat fitting that the Menier Chocolate Factory uses the same model of programmes that the late Bridewell used to: they are offering the same sort of classy and skilled productions, probably getting it even more right.

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