Take Flight

An ambitious new musical about aviation pioneers Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart and the Wright brothers.

With:
Charles Lindbergh - Claybourne Elder Wilbur Wright - Stanton Nash Orville Wright - Benjamin Schrader Don Hall and others - William Youmans George Putnam - Michael Cumptsy Burke and others - Price Waldman Ray Page and others - Bobby Daye Banker and others - Todd A. Horman Brenda and others - Marya Grandy Gladys and others - Linda Gabler Myra and others - Carey Rebecca Brown

An ambitious new musical about aviation pioneers Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart and the Wright brothers, “Take Flight” displays considerable craft but only occasionally wings off the ground. More earnest than entertaining, this arthouse piece performed by a 12-member ensemble soberly looks at the obsession that drove those American legends to dizzying heights.

The sometimes astringent score by composer David Shire and lyricist Richard Maltby Jr. is not as tuneful as those for their earlier shows such as “Baby,” but at least serves to propel John Weidman’s fragmented book, aptly intermingling three separate stories. Even as the Wrights dourly puzzle out the math to get a glider aloft in 1900s Kitty Hawk, Lindbergh is sputtering toward Paris in 1927 and hallucinating about his barnstorming past. Meanwhile it’s also the 1930s as Earhart becomes famous as the “Lady Lindy” and is wedded by her adoring backer, who promptly tries to ground her into domesticity.

Clearly staged at a steady clip by Sam Buntrock, who helmed the 2007 world preem at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory, the musical adds some quirky detail to the familiar bios (the Wrights packed a mandolin, who knew?) and dramatically crests three times as these heroes-to-be initially experience flight. Deadpan humor is dryly provided by the Wrights, who recall Beckett figures on designer David Farley’s wasteland setting, but usually the show is serious.

Several ensemble sequences such as the ’20s-jazzed “Back of the Line,” when Lindbergh and factory hands build his plane even as other daredevils try to reach Paris first, cleverly mix song and text. But much as Shire’s music and percussive orchestrations strive hard for that necessary airborne effect, the musical offers few tingles and scarcely a thrill. Nor does Farley’s at times cluttered design deal satisfactorily with the musical’s tripartite demands — perhaps projections might work better in this case.

A first-class production by McCarter Theater Center (where the tuner underwent a two-year post-Menier reworking), the show lacks musical passion but confidently packs ardent performances. A flinty Jen Colella strikes some sparks as the feisty Earhart, Claybourne Elder makes a manly Lindbergh and the slow-burning pairing of Stanton Nash and Benjamin Schrader could take the Wright brothers out on the Orpheum Circuit. Michael Cumptsy is stalwart in character and weak vocally as Earhart’s protective hubby.

Ken Billington’s lighting and Lisa Shriver’s musical staging help to finesse those transformative moments when the characters first take flight.

Don’t look for this fearless but oddly cheerless effort to land on Broadway, but regional stages may appreciate its smaller-scale seriousness and all-American profile.

Take Flight

Berlind Theater, Princeton, N.J; 360 seats; $70 top

Production: A McCarter Theater Center presentation of a musical in two acts with book by John Weidman, music by David Shire, lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr. Directed by Sam Buntrock. Musical staging, Lisa Shriver; musical direction, Kevin Stites.

Creative: Sets and costumes, David Farley; lighting, Ken Billington; sound, Kevin Travis; orchestrations, David Shire; production stage manager, Cheryl Mintz. Opened, May 13, 2010, runs through June 6. Reviewed May 13. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN. Amelia Earhart - Jenn Colella

Cast: Charles Lindbergh - Claybourne Elder Wilbur Wright - Stanton Nash Orville Wright - Benjamin Schrader Don Hall and others - William Youmans George Putnam - Michael Cumptsy Burke and others - Price Waldman Ray Page and others - Bobby Daye Banker and others - Todd A. Horman Brenda and others - Marya Grandy Gladys and others - Linda Gabler Myra and others - Carey Rebecca Brown

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