Review: Amelia: Musicals That Fly (Theatre 20)

Last night I attended a fundraising concert for fledgling theatre company Theatre 20. Amelia: Musicals that Fly was a staged reading/singing of the story of Amelia Earhart and how she rose to fame as the great female pilot of the ‘20s and ‘30s.

I am interested in any piece from this time period and I loved how when walking into the Panasonic Theatre, big band music was playing from what actually sounded like an old phonograph. My date Ryan was excited too as he loves all things musical, and it is exciting to see something fresh and newly written and performed.

So a bit confusing, the night had one name but the musical has another slightly different name – which is Amelia: The Girl Who Wants To Fly written by Canadian gem John Gray. It definitely held a likeness to another great aviation musical written by Gray: Billy Bishop Goes To War. Like his previous work, it is an economical piece too, written simply for one pianist and three actors. Ryan felt that this economy crippled the piece slightly and that with more funding the show could be truly spectacular.

The night begins with Theatre 20 founding member Adam Brazier telling the audience about how amazing this new theatre company will be and describing the many wonderful things they have done this year. I suppose Brazier has a reason to be boastful, although no full scale production has come, the company has begun an outreach as well as an emerging artists program and has had two other fundraising concert nights like this one. To be sure, Theatre 20 is a company that holds promise.

Last night was a staged reading/concert of the show. The three actors stood with mics, signing and animating each character with abundance. In the centre stood Eliza-Jane Scott as Amelia herself. To either side were Steven Gallagher, playing her manager and husband G. P., and Karin Randoja, playing her sister Midge. The trio originally performed the show this summer as part of the Festival Players in Prince Edward County.

The facts of the piece are certainly entertaining – “Through careful image management Amelia could be a female Charles Lindberg.” We see Amelia on her first flight – desperately trying to tell the world that she didn’t actually fly the plane but she is shushed with “Don’t complicate the message.” This is a great story, and the three are great storytellers. There are actually a few interesting Canadian elements to the story too – the girls helping out with war efforts at a hospital on Spadina and Amelia trying to navigate Newfoundland’s fog.

The music is quite good and certainly the characterizations are well-realized in the skilled hands of each performer. I really loved the 1930s radio bits – I could watch a whole show of just that. However, I think the overlying issues with this piece are the passive strokes with which Earhart has been painted. This was Ryan’s biggest issue too – what is the point of view with this show? It doesn’t seem to have one. What drove her?

Ryan mentioned that the first song alludes to an idea where Amelia might fight to have her story told, but that never really comes to pass. Instead, she just seems to glide along with the facts until her eventual death. We don’t truly get to see what made her, her. I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t even an allusion to the many rumours that Earhart was gay. I don’t need a show to tell me whether she was or wasn’t – I just thought that it missed part of her rich legend.

Ryan felt that the musical couldn’t decide if it was in fact a musical or a song cycle as it was neither and it was both. This didn’t really bother me though, although I need to say that any violence scene with the words “Daddy No!” runs the risk of farce. Also, I thought it was jarring how the second act begins with “Daddy’s” death. People just coming in from a smoke break couldn’t help but giggle with the sung opening of “Daddy died.” Some buffing might have helped, or perhaps the score was written less with the town of a downtown theatre in mind.

Overall John Gray’s fans won’t be disappointed and really, neither was I. And if Theatre 20 lives up to its own ambitions then it is an exciting time for Canadian theatre indeed.