`Amelia' flies well with its audience

Premier: An original musical based on the aviator's life gets almost every detail right.

Review

July 22, 2004|By Mary Johnson | Mary Johnson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Klieg lights were the only thing missing from the sold out world premier of Amelia's Journey Friday at Chesapeake Arts Center's Studio Theatre. Greeting arrivals were composer-lyricist Doug Schenker, playwright Linda Page and director Eloise Ullman, who created the musical based on the life of aviator Amelia Earhart and her husband-promoter George Palmer Putnam.

The opening performance got nearly everything right, including a score filled with songs that move the action forward, a talented and well-rehearsed cast, the innovative and expansive use of theater space, the aura of authenticity in the characters, authentic period costumes and a great art deco door.

Solid storytelling devices include radio broadcasters and reporters relaying historical news bites that help propel the action seamlessly, and the intense audio drama of Amelia's final transmissions from the plane.

Schenker, who first developed the Amelia concept, credited director Ullman for casting and directing the show. Ullman additionally proved so skilled at networking that she attracted highly proficient tech people from the ranks of Colonial Players, who donated their time and talents. From music director Anita O'Connor to leading lady Mary Simmons with a chorus in between - all testified that it was Ullman who drew them into the production.

Page has created a first-rate script that holds audience attention from the first scene to the last, coming full circle with news of Amelia's disappearance.

Contributing to the high level of professionalism are O'Connor, who does her usual excellent job as music director, and Vicki Smith, who brings her unique sparkle to the choreography.

As Amelia, Simmons has a commanding, serene stage presence and enough acting skills to become the character in all her human multi-dimensionality. Simmons sings well and invests genuine feeling into the lyrics. She possesses an innate grace that serves her well in the dance numbers. She also undergoes a major transformation from plain young woman to sophisticated hostess, and is every inch the iconic aviator in authentic flight garb.

Initially, Scott Tanski doesn't quite fit the society mega-mover image of George Palmer Putnam, but he is believable in the demanding role through his dynamism and forceful personality. Tanski also sings well, although at times he is a bit loud for Simmons' Amelia, resulting in occasional balance problems. But Tanski cannot be faulted for his chemistry with Amelia.

Among the outstanding supporting actors, Jud Wegner is attractive as Amelia's flying instructor Duke Munroe, dominating the stage and revealing perhaps the best voice in the cast. His "If You Were Mine" is a showstopper.

Janene Borandi gives a strong performance as Amelia's lifelong friend Gwen Bowen, and Christy Stouffer is terrific as fiesty female pilot Annie Page.

Amelia's Journey continues at the Chesapeake Arts Center's Studio Theatre at 8 p.m. tomorrow and Saturday and at 3 p.m. Sunday. For tickets call 410-636-6597.

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