Take Flight, the new Maltby and Shire musical, received its world premiere on 25 July 2007 (previews from 11 July) at the Menier Chocolate Factory, where it continues its limited season until 22 September (See 1st Night Photos, 26 Jul 2007).

Long-term writing partners Maltby and Shire have been developing the new musical, inspired by the early 20th-century pioneers of flight, over the past three years and enlisted frequent Sondheim collaborator John Weidman, with whom the pair worked on the 1996 Broadway screen-to-stage musical Big, to craft the book (See News, 14 May 2007).

Take Flight is directed by Sam Buntrock and designed by David Farley, with musical supervision by Caroline Humphris, the same creative team behind the Menier’s five-time Olivier Award-winning revival of Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George, which transfers to Broadway’s Studio 54 in January. The 13-strong cast features Ian Bartholomew, Clive Carter, Michael Jibson, Sam Kenyon, Elliot Levey and Whatsonstage.com Award winner Sally Ann Triplett.

For most critics, while the material has its moments, it never quite takes off due largely to a disparate book in which three storylines compete for attention. However, there was praise for the production and its hard-working cast, with Sally Ann Triplett’s Amelia Earhart and Sam Kenyon and Elliot Levey’s comedy double act of the Wright Brothers noted as particular standouts.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) – “Sam Buntrock’s production does its best to provide a following wind, and is niftily designed by David Farley on a sloping sandy beach (the Wright stuff) with the band, led by Caroline Humphris, perched either side on platforms behind packing cases…Sally Ann Triplett’s crop-haired Amelia is a butch Biggles with a few giggles and a proto-feminist determination to prove herself rather than achieve fusion with the universe. Her wedding deal with Ian Batholomew’s dapper, blinkered Putnam is sealed in a tortuously banal duet about holding on to the secret part of yourself … The wittiest, and most enjoyable, lyrics belong to the Wright brothers whom Sam Kenyon (Wilbur) and Elliot Levey (Orville) play as a provincial comic double act in bowler hats before stumbling on their Kitty Hawk success. They just about get off the ground, which is the best you can say of the show as a whole.”

  • Lyn Gardner in the Guardian (three stars) – “The problems stem from a book that doesn't tie the three stories together until the end. The effect is of three planes flying in parallel formation - elegant but with a certain emotional coldness. Some may not find the eventual pay-off sufficient compensation, but I did as the obsessions of the protagonists drive them to the brink and they discover that it's not the flying but the landing that is the really tricky thing to deal with in life … Buntrock's production keeps things airborne and offers some truly soaring moments and first-class performances. Sam Kenyon and Elliot Levey are terrific as the Wright brothers, the Laurel and Hardy of flight; and Michael Jibson captures the autistic tendencies of Lindbergh, the Greta Garbo of pilots who wanted to be alone in the clouds. Best of all is Sally Ann Triplett, whose Earhart is a woman so terrified of being earthbound by domesticity that she flies too far. Yes, there are times when this evening is a bumpy ride, but at its best it puts paid to my long-held suspicion that if God had intended us to fly, he would never have given us the railways.”

  • Rhoda Koenig in the Independent - “Rather than evoking the period, Shire's music blasts us with anachronistic, pushy self-assertion. Maltby ends countless vocal lines with an emphatic "die", often in comic contexts; the idea may have been to remind us of the ever-present danger, but the result is tasteless … In Sam Buntrock's hard-working cast, Ian Bartholomew stands out for his touching portrayal of Earhart's unhappy husband, as does Elliot Levey for his droll, stone-faced Orville. Sally Ann Triplett incongruously turns Earhart into a tough tootsies … With two leads who share the stage only when one of them is dead, Take Flight is blatantly lacking an important theatrical element, the one for which flying is a well-known symbol. Lindbergh may exclaim: ‘Oh, God! Ahahahaha!’ when he's up in the air, but he's not keen on sharing his cockpit. Writers who put on musicals about the joy of being alone shouldn't be surprised if audiences take them at their word.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “The cast for this world premiere consists of some of the leading talents of British musical theatre, and on first night everything went off with consummate precision. Just one problem: like one of the Wright brothers' early attempts at a flying machine, Take Flight stubbornly refuses to take flight … The main problem, and it is almost always the main problem with new musicals, is the book. Weidman has opted for a portmanteau approach, telling three separate stories in the course of the evening ... Unfortunately, none of these stories proves particularly gripping on stage … Too many of Maltby's lyrics take flight into the trite, especially in the mawkish ballad about it always being darkest before the dawn, but there is real wit in the comic songs, especially those for the Wright brothers, played with splendid lugubriousness by Sam Kenyon and Elliot LeveySally Ann Triplett is adorably plucky as Earhart, Ian Bartholomew touching as her anxious husband, while Michael Jibson makes an interesting screwed-up loner as Lindbergh … But I fear the show is doomed to remain a cult curiosity rather than soaring into the stratospheric realms of the smash hit, for it lacks one crucial thing - that vital, indefinable touch of wonder."

  • Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail – “The production takes a while to cough into life. Composer David Shire is one of those high-brows who makes you wait for your show toon. And wait. Like Stephen Sondheim, he inserts maddening little half-feints and minor-scale qualifications, just when a melody seems imminent. Some people adore Sondheim. I'm not one of them … But finally, the songs do flourish and several of them are top-rate … From the moment Sally Ann Triplett arrives as Earhart, the whole evening receives an upgrade. Miss Triplett, trousered and short-haired but just the right side of butch, sings ‘Lady in That Aeroplane’ in a lovely clear voice … Earhart's relationship with park with the Gershwins publisher George Puttnam (Ian Bartholomew), whose love for her was never quite reciprocated, is the best part of the show … Mr Bartholomew's unfussy singing voice complements Miss Triplett perfectly and they have a gorgeous duet, ‘Around The World’ … That moment alone may earn Take Flight a West End transfer… Director Sam Buntrock also displays plenty of imagination with his hard-working, comically gifted cast.”

    - by Ryan Woods