2 December 2007 (Sun), Tokyo
A musical in the formative stages with book by John Weidman and songs by the Maltby/Shire team. It had been done on a tiny scale in London at the Menier Chocolate Factory, but local director Miyamoto Amon has reworked it for the 1,500-seat Forum with hopes of taking it to Broadway. Its main draw for the Japanese was ex-Takarazuka star Amami Yuki in her first stage musical role in some time, which seemed a fair guarantee of commercial success. I was pretty dubious of the creators developing a work in a language they don’t understand for an audience way outside their target, and Amon’s tendency towards works that have “significance” wasn’t encouraging either. (In an interview in Theatre Guide, he quoted Sondheim as saying that the musical was dead. So who does he think killed it?) On top of this, Weidman tends to write shows about themes rather than people, and Maltby/Shire haven’t done much of distinction together since Baby. (The trio worked together before on Big, which flopped big time. The score was execrable.) In any case, I’ve been wrong before, and these are all major talents, no matter what I think. So I was eager to take a look.
The show was a simultaneous look at three pioneers of flight – the Wright Brothers, Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart. Their stories don’t intersect on stage any more than they did in real life; they are told in brief interwoven spurts. The Wright Brothers were shown wracking their brains to develop an airplane, and they were given contrasting personalities in an attempt to make it interesting. The attempt was not successful. Their scenes were on what looked like a deserted landscape that was presumably supposed to be North Carolina. I don’t know how the show’s writers thought that this process could have been dramatic, and the situation was not helped by some pseudo-Sondheimesque music. Even the vaudevillian number they sang was pretty lame. This was the worst of the three stories.
Lindbergh was portrayed as having doubts over his famous flight. People would appear as hallucinations during the flight, popping up in the cabin and singing. Other scenes were also enacted on the ground, which I presume are also his memories. It was a very strained device by the authors. Amelia Earhart had the most substantial story, maybe because of the love interest. She was determined to be a great pilot despite the skepticism of others regarding female stamina and fortitude, and managed to achieve her goals over the course of the show. She won the heart of her publisher, and once married, promised him she would give up flying if he would let her do a final historic solo round-the-world trip. We already know, of course, how that turned out. The story seemed like it might have potential if it were more fleshed out, though not with the leaden music it was given.
I guess the intended theme here is the desire to take wing, but as usual with Weidman, a theme on its own is not enough. There’s just not enough here to make us care – that can only come from real people, and the stories were not sufficiently involving for that. One problem was the difficulty of conveying the thrill of flying in dramatic terms. None of the simulated flights achieved a similar liftoff among the audience, though the side-by-side flights of Lindbergh and Earhart late in the show might have worked it the surrounding material had been better. The material seemed rambling, and I can’t imagine what Amon saw in it that inspired him to bring it to Tokyo.
Amon’s direction wasn’t necessarily bad given how little he had to work with, but neither did he manage to transcend the material. I liked some ideas, like the primary colors used to light the planes and the interesting shadow figures used for crowd scenes. One scene featured a number of brightly lit open doorways on two levels each with a person singing, a touch that I remember from his production of a Canadian play some time ago. The total was simply less than the sum of its parts, basically a number of interesting ideas strung together.
Amami Yuki looks great with those long legs, but she is not a singer and not a deep actress. I have real doubts about her as the star of Wonderful Town next year (for which she’s not ideally cast anyway). The Wright brothers left no impression whatsoever, though I hate to judge them on the basis of that material. Others ranged from so-so to not-so. The one actor who really stood out was Shirota Yu, the Lindbergh guy. He is young, handsome and dynamic, his voice is strong, and, being half Spanish, he has an exotic look. I remember him from Amon’s Sweeney Todd as well, where he did a nice job as the sailor who loves Joanna.
In the end, this was a waste of everyone’s time and talent. Broadway? I don’t think so.