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A Face in the Crowd

Amelia’s Journey Reexamines America’s Favorite 1930s Female Pilot

SHE'S ALL SPLAT: Scott Tanski and Mary Simmons have to deal with a lack of direction in Amelia's Journey.

By John Barry | Posted 7/20/2005

Amelia’s Journey By Linda Page and Doug Schenker

At the Chesapeake Arts Center through July 31

Amelia’s Journey at Chesapeake Arts Center is an original musical—but, on the program at least, it’s a little difficult to decide who gets the credit for it. The “book” is by Linda Page; the “concept” and “songs” are by Doug Schenker. The concept itself is where we should begin, because it’s actually a fairly novel idea: the deconstruction of Amelia Earhart, American aviatrix.

Amelia Earhart is burned in our collective memory as a cute, thirtysomething woman wearing airplane goggles and an aviator’s jacket. She wound up getting her face on a 37-cent stamp and a blurb or two in most books of quotable women. The other thing most people recall is that her career took a quick nosedive during her 1937 round-the-world journey, somewhere between New Guinea and a small island in the mid-Pacific, where she was lost without a trace.

Does she deserve her own postage stamp? Amelia’s Journey leaves that an open question. The brutal truth is that, like many women, Amelia had a lousy sense of direction, and she wasn’t much of a flier, either. In fact, as this musical makes clear, she was an amateur pilot manufactured into a media celebrity by her agent and husband-to-be, George Putnam.

By the end of the Journey it’s clear that if anyone should be on that 37-cent stamp, it’s George Putnam. Putnam is a cigar-chomping, hard-driving entrepreneur with vision enough to turn a distinctly uncharismatic social worker into the ultimate icon for career-oriented American women. Scott Tanski takes control of the production as Putnam, directing the show with a mix of arrogance and charm. The occasional interjections of historical context and Amelia herself really detract from the central thesis: that behind every great woman is a shameless promoter.

As Earhart, Mary Simmons fits perfectly into this scheme with her low-key, subdued performance. Instead of turning Earhart into the barnstorming broad of legend, she plays her more as a submissive stewardess. Putnam himself refers to her as a dowdy church mouse; even when she gets her own pair of goggles, the moniker sticks.

It’s also through jaded eyes that we view the promised love affair between Putnam and Earhart. In real life, this was the famous one-year trial marriage, where Earhart retained her name and the right to dump him. Basically, he is the magnet and she is steel; if Earhart shows any sort of inner strength, it’s in her initial, if futile, resistance to this capable, rich publicity hound. Halfway through the show’s second tune, she’s decided to hop aboard and spread her wings.

When you have a flier who can’t fly, though, there’s going to be a moment of truth. In this musical, at least, the idea is that Earhart was able to get around that complication, either by crash-landing or turning the controls over to her male copilot. In one song, “America Flies with Amelia,” the crash-landings were beginning to raise questions in the minds of her adoring multitudes. That gives her tragic disappearance a circumspect note. Earhart probably didn’t want it all to end the way it did, but, like Jim Morrison, she had a good sense of timing. Did Putnam plan it that way?

This musical offers an interesting spin on the Earhart myth, at any rate—although Schenker should make a stronger play. Either he’s beatifying her or just beating up on her—it’s not always clear. Just when Journey verges on satire, it almost descends into tear-jerking. The musical itself is crowded with songs: with about 15 songs in two acts, this is as close to a revue as a musical gets. The piped-in synth-pop accompaniment is a big mistake, particularly since Journey is supposed to transpire in pre-World War II America. Christy Stouffer’s choreography is intricate and intriguing, but a little awkward in the execution.

As for the singing, there were a few glitches here, a little unintentional Schoenberg there. Oh, hell, how to say this?: They look like they’re having a good time, but, aside from Tanski’s baritone, the singing is off off-Broadway—and not the one in New York. Apparently there is a recording of Amelia’s Journey available on Samberhalo Records; that might be the way to go.

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