By Bill Beard
Timber Lake Playhouse (TLP) in Mt. Carroll, Ill., is celebrating its 50th Anniversary Season by doing all shows that have never been seen there in the past 50 years.
Great idea! Some great shows! Some great challenges. Such as their first of the season last week, Sunset Boulevard, and their upcoming Sweet Charity, both challenging in that they require experienced, superb singer-actor-dancers to fill the demanding roles. But their current show, playing through this coming Sunday, June 27, presents an entirely different sort of challenge. This is a wonderful, off-beat, “real-life fantasy” called Flight of the Lawnchair Man; and it demands the right talent, but also some very special design and direction.
You may or may not remember the real-life incident upon which this delightful piece is based, wherein Larry Walters, an everyday truck driver in San Jose, Calif., tied 45 helium-filled weather balloons to his actual lawn chair and managed to float 15,000 feet up into the California skies and right into the flight paths of LAX Airport! But it really happened in July 1982, and it created lots of news!
It also spurred many other “take-off” experiments, including Bridget Carpenter’s play, Up (The Man in the Flying Lawn Chair); and eventually, it became the basis for the charming and very successful Pixar cartoon film Up. Neither the play nor the musical follows Walters’ whole story, but they were inspired by his initial daring deed. The musical has not yet enjoyed the same kind of success as the film, although the songs are delightful. TLP’s production is musically exciting and fun. It will lift your spirit and allow you to enjoy a bit of “dream come true” philosophy.
In this version, Jerry Gorman, a snack bar manager at the local Super Wal-Mart, dreams of some day being able to fly, but fails in all attempts to become a pilot, even failing a flight-simulator trial, to say nothing of the harsh discouragement from his Wal-Mart friends and a demanding mother. Only his zany girlfriend, Gracie, a New Jersey Turnpike toll booth collector, understands the depth and intensity of his vision. She supports him all the way, even when she realizes it may mean she loses him. She continually encourages him to: “Fly, Jerry, fly!”
Gracie is played by resident actress Sophie Brown, who is sure to provide strong performances all summer. Her energy and spirit are wonderful to behold, and her singing is a thrill; strong and beautiful. She is a delight throughout, and is the perfect partner for Grant Drager (new this year) as Jerry. Drager is completely appropriate as the “uncertain dreamer,” wanting something so very much, but not quite able to do it on his own. But with Gracie’s help, and in defiance of his seemingly-shallow, self-concerned mother, and in spite of the useless help and advice of his conceited, self-absorbed, high and mighty pilot friend, Big Captain Jack, Jerry devises his own way of achieving his dream. Solution: lawn chair and 45 weather balloons!
Drager is absolutely charming. One cannot help but cheer him on. But I could not help wanting him to somehow infuse Jerry with a little more underlying excitement from time to time, more moments of enthusiasm-ready-to-explode-forth.
Brandon Ford’s Captain Jack is an amazing contrast to the heavy romantic gigolo role he played last week in Sunset Boulevard; his ability to handle stylized comedy was refreshing; and his “stewardess” sidekick, played by Erica Vlahinos, was just as wonderful.
But it was Julia Mitchell as Mother Gorman who impressed me most. Of course, this character is the most multi-dimensional in the story, giving the actress a chance to work through her own sort of metamorphosis from the seemingly self-concerned witch to the scarred, “dealing-with-her-history” single mother.
Kudos also to Ms. Kelsey Andres, from Roosevelt University’s CCPA and a stalwart from last summer, whose unique physical characterization of the FAA Agent was wonderful, and her handling of the French Boy puppet hilarious. Also a mention for (although the program doesn’t name the character) the ensemble player who played the reporter and who looked so good in that pinstriped suit that he should be able to take it with him at the end of the summer!
This is a flimsy script…pure cotton candy…but the design elements were all perfect! The cartoon concept, the high-energy choreography, the whole directorial stylization—all were absolutely necessary to make this production work. But it did! Thanks to Guest Director Chuck Smith, with Artistic Director James Beaudry’s musical staging, as well as Designer Nathan Dahlkemper and Scenic Artist Richart Schug, and whoever came up with the clever effect of the lawn chair and its “abundance of balloon strings.” The use of the white balloon clouds worked brilliantly. Costumes, lighting, props…great.
Flimsy script? Yes! But how wonderful to find the second act developing into such a strong civil rights statement, leading to the powerful declaration: “The air is free!” Definitely go to see this production; you will not have many chances to see it. It is a delight! Act I is short, and yes, flimsy. But reserve judgment until after Act II. Even though the decisive moment between Jerry and Gracie at the very end makes a truly poignant ending, this show will leave you with a warm, fuzzy, “Anything is possible” feeling.
It closes this weekend. Go! Call now, (815) 244-2035, or visit www.timberlakeplayhouse.org.
From the June 22-28 issue