Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Faulkner: "Flight of the Lawnchair Man"

It's the musical that few have heard of, though it has been around in several iterations for years. Based on actual events in the life of Larry Walters, a California truck driver who in 1982 floated into commercial air space on a simple lawn chair held aloft by 45 weather balloons, Flight of the Lawnchair Man is showing now at the Faulkner University Dinner Theatre.

Directed by Angela Dickson, with Musical Direction by Marilyn Swears, this engagingly sweet musical by Robert Lindsey-Nassif and Peter Ullian re-locates the play to Passaic, NJ and has as its protagonist, docile Jerry Gorman [Joe Vasquez], a 34-year-old whose attempt to fulfill a life long dream of flying is abetted by ever faithful would-be girlfriend Gracie [Emily Woodring], despite the resistance of Jerry's one-time hippie Mother [Madyson Greenwood], and overbearing Wal-Mart boss Mr. Frankel [Blake Williams]. -- Throw in pilot named Big Jack [Brandtley McDonald] who Jerry idolizes and who is accompanied by Barbie-like stewardess Blaire [Brooke Johnston], and assorted townspeople, NASA officials, TV reporters, and Leonardo DaVinci, Charles Lindberg, and Amelia Earhart, and what results is a hodgepodge that somehow manages to hold us with its clever lyrics, solid performances, and innocent and uplifting messages.

Set on Matt Dickson's brightly colored cartoon cut-out set [there are a number of very astute choices in making some characters "fly"], and with an unremarkable but singable score, it is the ensemble actors who carry the play along.

While their characters are often one-dimensional, the commitment of the individual actors is excellent. Ms. Greenwood's depiction of Mother is brash and comes with a spot-on Jersey accent; she commands the stage. Mr. McDonald is reliable as Big Jack, showing a "damaged man" convincingly. He is paired with Ms. Johnston, whose perky role could be a mere caricature; but she imbues it with a subtle sense of worldly knowledge that almost steals the show, and she is so natural that you can hardly take your eyes off her.

What starts out as a scene reminiscent of The Stepford Wives with clean-cut characters singing "Everything is Perfect in Passaic", soon turns to the dilemma of Jerry pursuing his dream. Mr. Vasquez captures the naivete and off-beat earnestness of Jerry, making him appear comfortable in his character's distress. -- And with Gracie ever at his side to encourage and protect (and wish that Jerry could return the devotion/love she has for him), Ms. Woodring brings a compassionate and strong presence to each of her scenes. -- Their duet at the end of Act I -- "I Want to Fly" -- captures the audience's collective heart.

No spoiler alerts here; the plot comes full circle, but with a number of twists along the way. And it is important to stress the themes/messages that carry the play to its end. "Follow your dreams." "Don't let ridicule run your life." "Seize the Day." -- And understand that a person can be impractical and happy.