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Take Flight

This musical about the early days of aviation is intellectually challenging and thoroughly engrossing. logo
Jenn Colella and Michael Cumpsty
in Take Flight
(© T Charles Erickson)
"What are the real coefficients of lift?" might not seem exhilarating in print, but, when Wilbur Wright (Stanton Nash) blurts out these words to his more well-adjusted brother Orville (Benjamin Schrader) in John Weidman, David Shire, and Richard Maltby, Jr.'s musical Take Flight, now playing at McCarter Theatre in Princeton, it sends chills up the spine. This is the moment when the brothers realize they will have to throw out theoretical mathematics in favor of applied mathematics which they will work out themselves -- although they lack high school diplomas and are failed inventors and bicycle salesmen.

Of the three stories of aviation that make up this offbeat but deeply satisfying new musical, the Wrights' is particularly inspiring. Not everyone wishes to take a solo journey across the Atlantic like Charles Lindbergh (Claybourne Elder), or believes freedom is "better than love" as Amelia Earhart (Jenn Colella) does, but it's easy for most anyone to relate to the brothers' feelings of discouragement and futility replaced by growing determination.

Moreover, the production instantly draws you in thanks to the striking scenic design by David Farley (who also designed the pretty period costumes), the snappy direction by Sam Buntrock, and the work of a strong cast.

It takes a little while to grasp that the three stories, while connected in theme, are separated in time. At different points, different stories seem most urgent. Early on, the two brothers in bowler hats on the beach seem less exciting than Lindbergh trying not to fall asleep during a grueling 35-hour solo flight, hallucinating incidents from his past, or Earhart waiting for clouds to lift off Nova Scotia in order to be the first woman to make a transatlantic flight (although she is going not as a pilot but as a passenger).

Furthermore, the Wright brothers' rhythm has an almost Beckettian quality: Wilbur's intensity borders on mental illness and Orville's whimsy (he brought along a mandolin to teach himself to play) feels stilted. In contrast, Earhart, an elegant gamine with a short haircut that makes her look a lot like Lindbergh, charms with her humor and drive -- and her growing love affair with her publisher, Putnam (Michael Cumpsty), has inherent drama. Lindbergh, in the persona of Elder, has leading-man appeal, including a strong and impassioned voice.

Much of the show is sung, yet there's enough smart dialogue to keep this from feeling like an opera. And while some of the songs are reprised, you are likelier to wish to hear the score again than leave humming it; the melodies have a complexity that pleases but is hard to grab onto. There are some standout numbers, such as "Throw It To the Wind," in which Earhart lets Putnam know what flying means to her; Orville and Wilbur's Act Two duet, "The Funniest Thing," which has distinct vaudevillian appeal; and the Act One finale, "Before the Dawn," a glorious theatrical anthem performed by the entire company, which also reprises elements of the opening song, "Take Flight."

Lisa Shriver's musical staging supports the show with some much-needed dance. Also adding to the charm of the production are Ken Billington's saturated lights and Ken Travis' sound design, which includes such punctuation marks as applause for Amelia's landing, radio news flash sound effects, and the hum of propellers.

Take Flight is the kind of intellectually challenging and thoroughly engrossing musical we don't see enough of these days. Here's hoping it continues to soar, perhaps on Broadway, sometime very soon.

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