At key points in “Take Flight,” the new tuner from the team of Richard Maltby Jr., David Shire and John Weidman, characters sing the title of the show. On the word “flight,” the voices of the ensemble fan out into lustrous harmonic clusters. Appropriately enough, the effect is dizzying. Sadly, however, for most of the rest of the evening in this Menier Chocolate Factory production, it’s not just the show’s struggling pioneer aviators who remain earthbound.
The musical is less of a drama, more a compilation of stories of early flight: Charles Lindbergh (Michael Jibson) meets Amelia Earhart (Sally Ann Triplett) meets the Wright brothers (Sam Kenyon and Elliot Levey). And to help tie this disparate crew together, the less-well-known Otto Lillienthal (Clive Carter), who died in 1896 testing a flying machine, is on hand as narrator.
If this compare-and-contrast structure of juxtaposed individuals with separate motivations in pursuit of similar goals sounds familiar, it is. Swap airplane wings for guns and what have you got? Weidman’s “Assassins.”
The latter, however, scores highly by having the courage of its convictions. Its cast of firearm-wielding freaks, fools and furies never panders to the supposed need for easy identification. “Take Flight,” however, panics that it has nothing with which to engage emotions, so late in the proceedings, a love story arrives between Earhart and the wealthy publisher George Putnam (Ian Bartholomew), who backed her and married her.
Alas, the attempt at a traditionally developed relationship is not only at war with the rest of the dovetailed structure, it’s woefully underwritten. From the first of their depressingly similar scenes together, the blueprint of their doomed relationship is clear — she loves to fly, he loves her and wants to ground her. Predictability being the enemy of drama, it’s sadly impossible to engage with a situation so schematic.
The show’s only real surprise is the handling of the Wright brothers. Kenyon plays comically strangulated beanpole Orville to Levey’s more perplexed, wide-eyed Wilbur, who sports the world’s widest moustache. The two of them expertly dispatch their quirky duets with captivatingly droll humor. Their neatly fashioned “The Funniest Thing,” a baffled response to long-term failure, absolutely lives up to its title.
Indeed, their joint characterization is so winning that when their plane finally achieves liftoff, so does the show. Unfortunately, it’s in the closing bars — way too late for a musical to have found its motor.
The real puzzle is the lack of personality in the writing. Maltby and Shire’s “Starting Here, Starting Now” found a voice through wit and astringency. These generic lyrics, with references to “taking wing” or “feelings deep inside” that are “trying to sing,” are considerably less tart.
Musically, Shire’s vocal arrangements and orchestrations for a band of eight are richly textured. Caroline Humphris’ band plays beautifully throughout, with evocative accompaniments, especially from the woodwind section. The songs employ effective major-minor shifts and provide strong vocal opportunities, but several of the musical ideas and numbers in this largely sung-through score are derivative of Weidman’s usual collaborator, Stephen Sondheim.
The rippling, repetitive ostinato that figures beneath much of Lindbergh’s music — strongly sung by Jibson — is a dead ringer for the one that powers the whole of “Sweeney Todd.” A Sousa-esque march echoes “Assassins,” while the comedy lineup of Europeans attempting flight sounds like a similar sequence in “Pacific Overtures” (another Weidman book). Even the Wright brothers’ opening number strikingly mirrors the punctuated, stop-go rhythms of “It’s Hot Up Here” from “Sunday in the Park With George.”
The Broadway-bound revival of the latter show (which also originated at the Chocolate Factory) was helmed by Sam Buntrock, whose work is less successful here. The nonlinear script has almost no dramatic action, so there’s little tension. Yet even when opportunities arise, Buntrock doesn’t harness them. A “Follies” number is staged with energy and lots of lighting changes but no build.
David Farley goes for simplicity in his design — suitcases and packing cases double as furniture on a sandy floor — until he and Buntrock fashion a climax with a bank of headlights that rises to dazzle the audience. But the moment feels added, as if the team felt a visual coup was a good idea, rather than something arising out of drama.
Bartholomew wrings every drop of pathos from Putnam and sings with affecting restraint. Faced with an equally underwritten character, Triplett’s Amelia remains resolute, but her hard-edged sound is not ideal for a role that uncomfortingly requires her to shift up into head voice.
If ever an idea had “one act” written through it, it’s this one. Despite felicities and effective moments, at nearly 2½ hours, “Take Flight” feels seriously drawn out. Cutting, however, is unlikely sufficient to solve its serious structural flaws and allow for takeoff.