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Take Flight

Lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr, Music by David Shire and Book by John Weidman
Menier Chocolate Factory
(2007)

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Under the sure guidance of David Babani, the Menier Chocolate Factory is fast becoming a reliable producing house for smaller West End theatres. In the last couple of years, he has taken Sunday in the Park with George and Little Shop of Horrors from the theatre by London Bridge to the West End and the former is now heading for Broadway.

Therefore Take Flight, which has been created by a reliable off-Broadway writing team, comes with much anticipation. This has been enhanced by the presence of designer, David Farley, who has been associated with both of the big hits and director Sam Buntrock, who started the process off with Sunday ....

Take Flight is an enjoyable piece of musical theatre with the emphasis as much on the latter word as the former. It interweaves three all-American stories of those magnificent men (and women) in their flying machines from the early days when life expectancy was almost a misnomer, certainly to those whose goal was to cross the Atlantic single-handed, let alone circumnavigate the world.

The earliest chronologically are the Wright brothers, Wilbur and Orville, played by the oddly matched Sam Kenyon and Eliot Levey. They are portrayed as akin to a couple of music hall comedians who have determination but little else on their side as they strive to establish how it is possible for an aeroplane to remain off the ground, especially with people inside. In this, they get ghostly company from their mentor, the larger-than-life Otto Lilienthal, given great stage presence by Clive Carter.

Charles Lindbergh was a loner who seems far more comfortable at the controls of an aeroplane than when interacting with his fellow human beings. Michael Jibson spends much of the evening, precariously perched on a ladder which takes on a new role as a cockpit for each of the flyers.

His story is told through the hallucinatory flashbacks that he experiences during his incredibly long transatlantic crossing.

The final portrayal is by the evening's star, Sally Ann Triplett playing Amelia Earhart. Much to her chagrin, she became known as Lady Lindy after Lindbergh. This feisty lady is sponsored by Ian Bartholomew, playing publisher George Putnam who needed a new way of selling books. Soon enough, she buys her flight across the Atlantic with her hand in marriage. This is probably a good thing for both, although their relationship gets close to foundering over her aeronautical obsession.

Eventually, after a second deal, she embarked on a world tour that would have ended in retirement, if she had not disappeared in what must surely be the classic pilot's way to heaven.

The stories are well told and fit together handsomely, although depth of characterisation is not a strong point, especially in the cases of the Wrights. The music's main progenitors are probably Stephen Sondheim and Kurt Weill (who created his own opera based on one of our flyer's stories, The Lindbergh Flight), with occasional background influences that owe something to Aaron Copland.

Apart from the title tune, there are few memorable songs, but the music ensures that the plots bound along. There are some great comic moments, particularly when the unsung hero of the evening, Ian Conningham who plays a number of superb character cameos, gets together with a couple of colleagues to become dismissive bankers in "Sorry, Mr Lindbergh". This is challenged for comic effect by a Wright Brothers duet appropriately called "The Funniest Thing".

The best of the rest of the music comes either when Lindbergh goes anthemic at the end of a series of songs or Amelia and George get together to declare their love.

Take Flight is a thoroughly enjoyable history lesson, that should appeal to everybody from little boys (especially adult ones), entranced by tales of derring-do, to feminists, who will delight in the determination and courage of Amelia Earhart, a woman who achieved what no other possibly could have and in so doing advanced the cause of her gender by decades.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher