‘Vanishing Point,’ or, ‘Exposition the Musical’

Cristin J. Hubbard as Amelia Earhart. Photo by John Ulman

A triad of incredible women converges in Vanishing Point, the warm-hearted, whimsical and wildly disappointing musical now playing at Seattle Public Theater directed by Annie Lareau: Aviator Amelia Earhart, novelist Agatha Christie and Aimee Semple McPherson. McPherson isn’t a household name like the others (unless you’re a big fan of Kathie Lee musicals) but is a pioneer in her own right, a fiery Evangelist and the first woman to obtain a radio broadcast license in the U.S.

What these women have in common, as the title suggests, is that they all vanished at one point in their lives. Christie disappeared for 11 days in 1926, and was discovered in a hotel with no memory of what happened. Also in 1926, McPherson vanished for several weeks and later reappeared, claiming kidnapping. And of course, Earhart vanished over the Atlantic in 1937 and was never found.

Vanishing Point sets out to show what pushed these indomitable women to their personal brink, to the point they vacated their own lives—infidelities, thwarted ambition, the outright dismissal that came with being a woman in that era. And it does show us…sort of. Written by Rob Hartmann (music, book and lyrics) and Liv Cummins (book and lyrics), Vanishing Point spends an immense amount of time detailing the facts of their stories and relatively little on their interior lives. So while I got a sense of what they did, I got very little sense of who they were and, more to the point, why they’re together on stage.

Cristin J. Hubbard, as Amelia Earhart, delivered a somewhat stiff but beautifully sung performance, which only served to highlight how poorly suited Rebecca M. Davis’ and Heather Hawkins’ voices were to their roles of Christie and Semple, respectively. Davis, an eternally magnetic performer, brought her impeccable comic timing to Christie, but didn’t have quite the right facility with this fairly traditional (if eclectic) musical theatre score. On opening weekend, she struggled a bit to get through Christie’s patter songs, which are some of the best in the show, and Hawkins had an even rougher time with her character’s vocal range.

All three women play many characters, quickly pulling on costume pieces dangling around the set (designed by Andrea Bush) to help tell one another’s stories—Earhart’s promoter, Christie’s husband, each woman’s mother, among many others. The script zips between storylines quickly, the narrative braiding tight and clever.

But while the show is billed as a “musical comedy-fantasy,” but there’s very little fantasy at work here, and I wanted so, so much more. In Act Two, we finally break from a plodding narrative into some sort of dream or nethersphere, maybe an alternate history, and the possibility of cracking out of that terrestrial world was so tantalizingly close. The women are finally together, in an amorphous unreality, and they’re starting to take back their stories they’re now viewing from afar. But too soon, we retreat back into a safe, literal narrative. The heart of this show is so good, it sets out to explore big questions but only scratches the surface, tentative and unwilling to be as daring as its heroines.

More than anything, I just couldn’t suss out what this musical was even doing. If it’s just to tell the stories of these women, mission accomplished. But do we really need three simultaneous, exhaustive bio-plays? Information that could be powerfully conveyed in five seconds—that Earhart was reduced to being called Lady Lindy, that Christie learned about poisons working in a hospital dispensary, two examples of many—are instead drawn out into full songs or scenes.

And why? From the moment the first piano chord sounds, we know where we’re headed: It’s in the title, the opening number and all the press materials. They vanish. So what happens next? And why does that matter? Yes, these are three real-life stories, but it’s also a brand-new story all its own, and writers can do anything. I wish they had been braver.

Vanishing Point runs through Feb. 25.