Chicago's American Blues Theatre opened its world premiere production of The Flight Of The Phoenix Sept. 23.
The play, based on a novel by Elleston Trevor, follows the pilot and navigator of a cargo plane that crashes in the Libyan desert. Among the passengers are oil-drillers on vacation and British soldiers sent to stabilize warring factions in the region. When rescue becomes increasingly improbable, one passenger proposes a design to reconfigure the aircraft and fly out.
In his review for the Windy City Times, Larry Bommer called the airplane crash "one of the most thrilling moments in Chicago theatre...rivalled in excitement only by the play's final -- glorious -- escape." Admitting that the play's characters are "B-movie cliches," Bommer wrote that despite some shaky accents, "the cast, directed by Brian Russell and Cecilie Keenan...bring sturdy confidence to familiar fare... This should fly."
In his four-star review for Gay Chicago magazine, critic Tim Sauers called Phoenix "solid, inspirational and moving... Scenes range from a beautifully poignant monologue from Micheli, an oil driller, as he cries out in a moment of madness to a loved one he misses, to a touchingly comic moment between [Michael] Goldberg and [David] Roth as they reminisce about women's breasts over an imaginary cigarette."
Reached by phone, director Brian Russell surprised Playbill On-Line by telling us that the airplane was no greater a problem to deal with than any other large piece of stage scenery. "The dune is just as large and important an element," Russell noted. "The play opens with the dune and plane hidden by a drop. That comes down during the crash." Staging the crash involved a mix of high-tech scenery (by Patrick Kerwin) and non-realistic design elements. "During the flight the entire cast is onstage," Russell continued. "The pilot and co-pilot are in a non-realistic setting; sound designer Lindsay Jones did a mix with wind and music. Just as the crash is about to happen, all the action stops, a single light comes up, and the characters introduce themselves. Then blackout, huge crash noise, the wall crashes down, the propeller spins, fog effects, and the fuselage propels about ten feet downstage."
To Playbill's exclamation of "Wow!", Russell added that when the cast then spend the duration of the play putting the plane back together. "The pieces fit together," he admitted, "it's less complex than it looks -- which is good!" "Then at the end," Russell explained, "the upper edge of the dune drops down, and the plane, which sits perpendicular on it, lifts up in the air, about six feet."
Elaborate production values (set by Patrick Kerwin) include a 70 percent scale airplane on stage. A standing ovation greeted the opening night performance.
In his review of Flight Of The Phoenix, Richard Christiansen wrote, "Under the inspiration of scenic designer Patrick Kerwin, American Blues theatre...has attempted the impossible. To their credit, and with the aid of Kerwin's set design, the play's nine actors do their darndest to pretend that they really are in the middle of the desert working on a plane wreck under a blazing sun... Not for one moment are they convincing, especially if one has seen director Robert Aldrich's oft-shown, super-realistic 1966 film...and, strangely, the production at key points doesn't use even basic sound effects, such as the roar of the engines, that might have added impact to the proceedings."
Christiansen did go on to praise Tom Geraty and the plane itself: "It's fun to watch, both when it crash lands and at intermission, when the hard-working actors piece it back together for the climactic second act."
Hedy Weiss, theatre critic for the Chicago Sun Times, began her review with the phrase, "Eat your heart out, Cameron Mackintosh! You might have gotten more hype than anyone thought possible for a blimpy little helicopter spectacle in Miss Saigon. But as theatrical aeronautics go, you've been left in the dust."
"If you take the whole adventure with a large grain of salt, there is a great deal of hokey fun to be had..." Weiss enthused. "If by the end of the show, your heart doesn't spin faster than the plane's propellers...well, it's a good bet you didn't clap for Tinkerbell, either."
Patrick Kerwin originally conceived the stage version, while Marty Higginbotham and the Phoenix company have done the adaptation. The play features Tom Geraty (as the Captain), Kevin Kelly, Paul D. Hertel, David Roth, Richard Shavzin, Jim Leaming, Michael Goldberg, Andrew Micheli and Ian Vogt. The play is based on the novel, rather than the 1996 film version, which starred Jimmy Stewart and Ernest Borgnine.
Phoenix is directed by Brian Russell and Cecilie Keenan, who replaced original director Gary Griffin on Aug. 19. Griffin withdrew because of conflicts with his schedule at Drury Lane Oakbrook Theatre, where he serves as artistic director. Brian Russell, acting artistic director of Northlight Theatre, Evanston, directed the Jeff-nominated "The Homage That Follows" for American Blues this spring. Cecilie Keenan, artistic director of Bailiwick Repertory, is a past member of the American Blues company.
American Blues Theatre was founded in 1985 to "create works that are inspired by and reflect the contemporary American experience." Carmen Roman & Marty Higginbotham are co-artistic directors of American Blues Theatre.
For tickets and information regarding The Flight of The Phoenix, call (312)929-1031.
-- By David Lefkowitz