Take Flight [Original Cast Recording]

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Take Flight [Original Cast Recording] Review

by William Ruhlmann

Librettist John Weidman collaborated with the songwriting team of Richard Maltby, Jr. (lyrics) and David Shire (music) on the flop 1996 Broadway musical Big (based on the hit 1988 movie directed by Penny Marshall and starring Tom Hanks). But Take Flight, which reunited the three for a summer 2007 production at London's Menier Chocolate Factory (a theater that is part of the British equivalent of off-Broadway), is more reminiscent of Weidman's work with Stephen Sondheim, notably Pacific Overtures and Assassins. In those shows, Weidman created original dramas not based on earlier sources, weaving his stories out of historical figures and incidents. (Pacific Overtures was about Commodore Perry's opening of Japan; Assassins examined presidential assassins.) He has done the same thing in Take Flight, which conflates three true stories of early aviation, those of the Wright brothers, Charles Lindbergh, and Amelia Earhart. The three stories take different forms. The Wright brothers section has the quality of a buddy picture; the Lindbergh section is the classic one-man-against-the-world saga; and the Earhart section brings out a woman's conflict between romance and career. Maltby and Shire provide a Sondheim-like score to accompany the complex plot, which jumps from section to section and back and forth in time and place, from the early 1900s to the mid-'30s and all over the globe. The songs are closely contoured to the characters, sometimes running long (some tracks run six, seven, or even nine minutes) and moving from scene to scene, the music ranging from minimalistic motifs to lively pastiches of period styles. It is largely successful, marred only by a certain similarity in the tenor voices of some of the male singers, especially Sam Kenyon as Wilbur Wright and Michael Jibson as Lindbergh (not a problem on-stage, of course, but definitely one on record). While listeners may find the portrayal of the Wrights as a couple of nerds amusing and may be stirred by Earhart's earnestness and desire (especially because of Sally Ann Triplett's outstanding performance), the characterization of Lindbergh may surprise them. This is not the Lindbergh played on-screen as an aw-shucks hero by James Stewart or masterfully described as an aloof loner by biographer A. Scott Berg. Weidman and Maltby's Lindbergh is a deliberately un-heroic and uncertain whiner who, at the moment of his great triumph, is least comfortable (particularly when Earhart appears to him and pleads with him not to land in Paris). Jibson often sounds anguished and nearly hysterical singing the part, which doesn't seem to jibe with the determination Lindbergh showed in overcoming daunting odds to make his successful flight. That aside, however, Take Flight, as represented by the original London cast album released by PS Classics in January 2008, sounded like one of the best new musicals in recent years and a good candidate for a Broadway production.

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