Take Flight

“Take Flight”

Book by John Weidman, music by David Shire, lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr

George Putnam – Ian Bartholomew
Otto Lilienthal / Noonan – Clive Carter
Byrd (and others) – Christopher Colley
Ray Page (and others) – Ian Conningham
Hall (and others) – John Conroy
Follies Amelia (and others) – Helen French
Burke (and others) – Edward Gower
Amy Phipps (and others) – Kaisa Hammarlund
Charles Lindbergh – Michael Jibson
Wilbur Wright – Sam Kenyon
Orville Wright – Elliot Levey
Mrs Lindbergh (and others) – Liza PulmanAmelia Earhart – Sally Ann Triplett

Band directed by Caroline Humphris

Sam Buntrock – Director
David Farley – Designer
Sam Spencer – Musical Staging
David Howe – Lighting Design
Sebastian Frost – Sound Design
Liberty Kelly – Costume Supervision

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 5 August, 2007
Venue: Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre, London

When did London last see an original new musical? Last year three opened and most are now into their second year (“Spamalot”, “Wicked” and “Avenue Q”). This year it was “The Lord of the Rings” (will it run and run?), and we briefly had “The Drowsy Chaperone” which came and went after only two months. It was not, however, like all the others mentioned (except perhaps “Avenue Q”) a truly original piece, but a pastiche of the type of 1920s musical that for obvious reasons they don’t write any more. Oddly, after a slew of great critical notices, “The Drowsy Chaperone” packed her bags and closed.

Apart from those listed above the West End is full of long-running successes such as “The Phantom of the Opera”, “Les Miserables”, “We will rock you”, “The Lion King”, “Mary Poppins”, “Billy Elliot” and “Blood Brothers”, older musicals including retreads of “The Sound of Music”, “Fiddler on the Roof”, “Chicago”, “Cabaret”, “Little Shop of Horrors”, “Dirty Dancing”, “Grease”, “Fame” and “Joseph…” plus the ubiquitous compilation shows like “Buddy” and “Mamma mia”, while we await the opening of “Bad Girls: the musical” (after the TV show), “Footloose” (from the film of the same name), “Satisfaction” (to the music of The Rolling Stones) and “Desperately seeking Susan” (with the music of Blondie).

No, originality is not what you expect from a West End musical nowadays. However, just walk over London Bridge and at the Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre in Southwark Street you’ll find “Take Flight”, a new and Original American musical getting its world premiere on the London fringe before tackling Broadway. This is a true original and not an adaptation of a book, film or other art form. The team of Maltby & Shire has had great success in the US with their musicals “Starting here, starting now”, “Closer than ever” and “Baby” which have also been seen on the London fringe. Maltby is better known for his lyrics to “Miss Saigon” and his screenplay of “Miss Potter”. Book-writer John Weidman has worked with Sondheim (“Pacific Overtures”, “Assassins” and “Bounce”) and with Maltby & Shire on “Big”, a musical based on the Tom Hanks film.

Any writer of late-20th-century musicals has to get past the towering names of Leonard Bernstein, Sondheim, Jerry Herman, and Kander & Ebb. In style “Take flight” is slightly akin to the work of Sondheim in its themes, treatment and overall endeavour to explain why a century ago some people were so obsessive about man’s (in)ability to fly. Most birds and some insects do it all the time with no bother at all, and yet man still had something to prove in the early days of prototype airplanes – possibly that he (or she, seeing that we are here dealing with Amelia Earhart among others) just had to go one better over God’s natural fliers.

“Take Flight” focuses on a few of the more celebrated flight obsessives: the Wright brothers, Otto Lilienthal, Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh. The Wrights were actually owners of a bicycle shop who just invented things as a hobby. When their printing press idea was gazumped, they turned to creating a flying machine. Lilienthal was a pioneer glider manufacturer who based his ideas on the aerodynamics of the wings of birds and was a great success until he died in 1896 in, yes, a gliding accident. Amelia Earhart was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. On her final journey in 1937 in an attempt to fly around the world, she disappeared. Charles Lindbergh built a single-engine plane and flew to Paris. The resulting account was a book that became the biggest bestseller in US publishing history when George Putnam, Amelia Earhart’s husband, published it. Lindbergh himself, however, survived until 1974.

The telling of each of these stories is intercut one with another, mostly in song with short interlinking scenes of dialogue. Weidman, Maltby & Shire obviously have great respect for their heroes, however irrational they may have been. Lindbergh, originally a poor circus performer (Charlie, the crazy walking clown) said he wanted to fly solo only because he could carry more fuel. The answer then was: “it would be cheaper just to shoot yourself”. Or did he just want the glory of being one man flying over the earth just for himself? Earhart – dubbed by the press as “the first lady of the skies” – just loved being up above the clouds, quiet and on her own. There she found a peace that she couldn’t find at home: “up here I belong”. The Wright brothers were probably out and out eccentrics – “we are just bags floating in our own hot air” – but they meant well and, if they were incompetent at what they tried to do, their heart was in it totally.

This is an amazingly engaging show that gets a loving and honourable staging at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Director Sam Buntrock creates a complete other world of characters obsessed by flying. He is aided by David Farley’s impressive but simple designs and Caroline Humphris’s punchy musical direction. All three were responsible for the success of the Menier revival of Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George”, so the signs are already good for a Broadway hit. The thirteen players in the cast work their socks off to put over Maltby & Shire’s exquisite songs with ‘Solo’, ‘Equilibrium’, ‘Earthbound’ and ‘Before the Dawn’ being the best of a very strong bunch. Ian Bartholomew as publisher Putnam brings a touch of ruthlessness reminiscent of “The Front Page”, Clive Carter as the dotty Otto Lilienthal supplies a litany of historical disasters involving man’s attempts to fly, and Michael Jibson as Lindbergh offers a mixture of humour and pathos in what was obviously a very complex man.

If there is a star (and there really isn’t in this company, because they are all so good), I suppose it would be Sally Ann Triplett whose big belting voice turns every number in which she appears into a showstopper.

I cannot think that we will see a better or more enjoyable – and original – new musical in London this year. So, the award goes to … “Take Flight” and I sincerely hope that when it lands in New York that it really takes off. It deserves to go up, up and away and fly off with any prize that’s going. Is it a bird, is it a plane, no it’s Maltby & Shire’s brilliant new musical. Having sent “The Drowsy Chaperone” packing, “Take Flight” can now be the toast of London (Bridge) and Broadway!

  • Take Flight is at the Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre, Bar, Restaurant and Gallery, London SE1, until Saturday 22 September
  • Bookings 020 7907 7060: meal-and-show deals from £20. No performances on Mondays
  • Menier Chocolate Factory

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