There would seem to be at least one stumbling block to writing a musical about Amelia Earhart's last flight: Wouldn't a good chunk of the action have to take place in a small plane, high over the Pacific Ocean?
In the world premiere production of "Bird of Quintain" at California Repertory Theatre, that block has been removed neatly via a simple expedient: The piece has been shaped as a sort of staged oratorio. But don't let that mislead you. The simplicity of the staging only adds to the tension and gives the play a sense of space and dimension that greater size probably could not.
Beyond that, the play's central concept is intriguing. It pairs the fated aviatrix with a humanized version of a medieval jousting device--the Bird of Quintain, which eventually unseated even the most stalwart knights.
"Quintain" is the brainchild of book writer and lyricist Howard Burman and director Joanne Gordon, with music by Rob Woyshner. For dramatic purposes, they have done away with Earhart's co-pilot and navigator, Fred Noonan, and have blamed her disappearance partly on a fabrication, her decision with her husband, publisher George Putnam, to remove a piece of radio equipment from the plane. That's fine (even though Earhart was in radio contact at each stopover, the last being Lae, New Guinea). Burman and Gordon's telling is tight, theatrical and impressive.
The historical accuracy is not as important as the production's flaws, few though they may be. There are some unintentionally and unfortunately amusing lyrics that might be reconsidered ("She's Amelia, and you can feel-ya got a tiger by the tail"), and the last scene definitely should be rethought. It defies logic, in spite of its fantasy form, and weakens what could be a powerful finale.
The storytelling recitative (there is no spoken dialogue) sometimes sounds Sondheimesque but nevertheless pales whenever Woyshner's more original ideas blossom. The haunting title song, the lovely and powerful ballad "My Songs" (sung by Sheri Nichols as Earhart in a bronze-patinaed soprano), the stirring "The Shadow's Growing Longer" and "You Are My Only Love," sung richly by Robert Barker as Putnam, are especially outstanding.
Jeff Paul is strong as the aeronautical liaison between the soaring Amelia and her earthbound, anxious but optimistic husband, and the sharp, well-tempered edge of Danny Bolero's tenor lends individuality to his performance as the tuxedoed Quintain. One of the show's best moments is his "The Final Dance," as he caresses and seduces Earhart to her destiny.
"Bird of Quintain" is a compact and attractive piece of work, compelling in its ideas. And director Gordon has provided it with energy and insight that artfully manage Earhart's eerie solitude throughout as counterpoint to the media-goaded frenzy below.
* "Bird of Quintain," California Repertory Theatre, 7th Street and West Campus Drive, Long Beach. Wednesdays at 6 p.m.; Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. with matinees at 2 this Saturday and Oct. 15. Ends Oct. 22. $15. (310) 985-7000. Running time: 2 hours. Sheri Nichols: Amelia Earhart
Robert Barker: George Putnam
Danny Bolero: Quintain
Jeff Paul: Mantz
Deanna Boyd, Matthew Gitkin, David Elias Glick, Doina Roman Osborn Ensemble
A California Repertory Theatre production of a musical with book and lyrics by Howard Burman and music by Rob Woyshner, directed by Joanne Gordon. Scenic design: Mark Abel, Lisa Hashimoto. Technical direction: W. Jeffrey Hickman. Movement consultant: Holly Harbinger. Production manager: Daniel C. Touris.