Amelia Earhart (and puppets, too)

Northwest Children's Theater's "Starlings" take flight with a new musical about the aviator pioneer and other women heroes of the sky

If you haven’t seen a previous production featuring the Starlings, Northwest Children’s Theater’s “all bird, all puppet acting troupe,” you might be in for a surprise with Amelia Earhart’s First Flight. Whether that surprise is pleasant or not probably depends on a couple of things: how much you were hoping for a more straightforward take on the life of Amelia Earhart, and how good your sense of humor is.

I’ll cast my vote right here: Overall, the one-hour production is a delight. It moves so quickly your head will spin, but in a good way. And, if you’re thinking only young kids will enjoy this one (the company recommends it for ages 4 and up), think again: On the way out of the theater the afternoon we saw it, two teenagers were talking about how they’d enjoyed it much more than they should have – and it was one of the teens’ second time seeing it.

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s … Amelia Earhart! Photo © 2017 David Kinder

The NWCT Starlings are a group of colorful birds who also happen to be theater performers. The magic starts for the younger set the moment you step inside Northwest Children’s Theater’s space on Northwest Everett Street. Colorful bird puppets are everywhere: taking tickets, directing people to and from the restroom, guiding lost patrons to their seats, sitting down in the row with you and having a chat. They might even ask permission to perch on your arm (and they’ll reciprocate by letting you pet their feathers, if you ask).

The interactive elements don’t end once the show begins. Audience participation is key for the Starlings, whether it’s making flying (“whoosh”) sounds while the puppet starling portraying Amelia Earhart (the exceptional Camille Trinka) takes her first airplane flight, or coloring our very own rocket ships. The Earhart story gets rather short shrift here as this lively musical seeks to be both something bigger and something smaller. Interspersed between the Earhart scenes are “presentations” from various bird puppets, telling us about other great women in aviation history. Nothing is covered in great detail, which is great for the younger set’s attention spans. However, a few pieces – the slam poem about Sally Ride, for example – might be a little hard to follow for the theater company’s target youth audience.

The writing of both lyrics and script — by NWCT artistic director Sarah Jane Hardy, associate artistic director John Ellingson, Sam Burns, Reece Marshburn, Marianna Thielen, and The Starlings — is fantastic. It’s a factual retelling of the importance of women in flight, and how much they had to overcome the odds and doubters to accomplish what they did. The message of girl power resonates loudly.

The musical numbers – nine original songs with music and lyrics by Marshburn and Thielen, also known as music duo The Bylines – are excellent: I’ll Soar, performed by Kaylee Bair and her bird puppet as the young Amelia Earhart, has the makings of a Disney ballad. Janette Alonso and her Rosa the Engineer Bird give Drag & Gravity the va-va-voom of Roxy Hart in Chicago – but, you know, about science and stuff. And Constellation could be a light show at OMSI.

The whole thing is emceed by Burns as Big Boss Guy and his somewhat inept assistant bird, Little One (Ellingson, who also conceived of the idea for the show with Hardy, who directs). While Burns and Ellingson carry the show through with grace and hilarity, they are almost shown up by a couple of amusing owls (Verónika Nùñez and Henry Martin as Who and Who-Who, respectively).

If you can give up on the notion of a strict Earhart biography and let your funny bone be tickled, you and the child theatergoers in your life are going to love this one. All the work that went into creating this bigger-than-life musical, and putting it on with such gravitas, will make you wish it could have a longer run. As it stands, you have two weekends left to get yourself to NWCT and see this production, with or without kids in tow.

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My 5-year-old’s review:

She loved Amelia Earhart’s First Flight by @nwctstarlings! #lincolnmarie

A post shared by Lincoln Marie Lewis (@lincolnmarielewis) on

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The Starlings Present: Amelia Earhart’s First Flight continues Saturdays and Sundays through Oct. 15 at Northwest Children’s Theater and School, with two shows each day. Ticket and schedule information here.

 

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