“Fly” depicts an unquestionably uplifting story about a group of Tuskegee Airmen during World War II, four brave black men torn between two separate and unequal worlds.
They come from different walks of life: Chet, a young Harlem kid; W.W., a Chicago womanizer; Oscar, a small-town idealist; and J. Allen, an educated West Indies native. But even though they all face the same racial prejudice and social oppression of the times, they still put their lives on the line in combat for a country that refuses to respect their fundamental rights as human beings.
As one of the pilots puts it, at least, “Up in the air, we’re free men.”
Stylishly directed by Patdro Harris, Theatrical Outfit’s “Fly” is a sporadically soaring production. A few action sequences, set high in the skies above Europe, are genuinely exciting – and a real testament to the collective efforts of Harris’ ace design team. Rob Dillard’s evocative video projections (cast against three large screens at the back of Kat Conley’s set), Mary Parker’s explosive lighting and Jonathan Summers’ echoing sound effects create the perfect feel of battle.
Similarly, with their feet on the ground, as down-to-earth dramatic characters, Harris’ actors function remarkably well together, too. The excellent Eric J. Little (“Superior Donuts”) is Chet, who’s telling the story in flashback. Just as strong are Doc Waller (as W.W.), Joel Ishman (Oscar) and John E. Doyle (J. Allen). The four of them establish a warm and authentic camaraderie that culminates in an invigorating, impromptu drill routine that practically stops the show.
That “Fly” occasionally veers off-course is primarily a drawback of the script (by Trey Ellis and Ricardo Kahn), which is prone to theatrical flights of fancy involving choreographed interludes performed by a symbolic tap dancer (Fenner Eaddy).
Although a couple of these moments work – early on, as each of the Airmen is introduced, they join him in forming a chorus line of sorts, and in a later combat scene his tapping represents the sound of gunfire – his appearances generally detract from the story rather than enhance it, substituting our legitimate emotional connection to the characters with artificial flourishes instead.
(Harris is most widely known as a director of musicals, including the Outfit’s 2010 revue “Blues in the Night,” but it’s pushing it a bit to categorize “Fly” as such, or to credit so prominently in the program his frequent collaborator Jmichael for “musical direction.”)
Rounding out the ensemble, Brian Kurlander and J.C. Long do what they can playing a number of token white bigots. At their finest, as fighter pilots bonding with their black comrades around a campfire, they add their voices to a moving rendition of “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree.” Elsewhere, however, Kurlander’s aside to the audience as a frustrated captain and Long’s mid-air confession about a lynching incident from his past seem downright heavy-handed.
Even so, despite some bumpy patches along the way, in large part “Fly” takes wing.