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FLYING HIGH SUMMERFARE IS AT THE TOP OF ITS GAME IN 'WINGS'

THE LIKELIHOOD of an entertaining, moving, even humorous and inspiring piece of musical theater brought forth from an older woman's recovery from a stroke seems diminishingly small. But that is exactly what "Wings" manages to do. It is a piece prepared by Arthur Perlman and Jeffrey Lunden that closely follows Arthur Kopit's play of the same title. This may account for its dramatic impact.

The Perlman-Lunden musical won some off-Broadway awards when it was first done in New York City. And the Summerfare Musical Theatre production that opened Thursday evening (I saw a preview performance Wednesday) is one of its most aesthetically pleasing, and it has had some good ones over the years.

It has also a remarkable performance by Sheila McCarthy as the older woman, Emily Stilson. Almost all the singing is done by her, and it is lovely, but what raises it above the usual is her seamless crafting of character with music detailing her adventures in the hospital and later in nursing home.

Everyone from Perlman-Lunden on down to Summerfare and its people deserve a simple but important award -- call it the Integrity Prize -- for sticking closely to Kopit's play and not trashing it in the musical process.

Kopit came to write his play in the late '70s (it was first performed in 1979) at the conjunction of an open-ended commission to write a radio play and his father's stroke. His father's resultant aphasia (an incapability to understand or use words) and visits to recovery therapy led Kopit in the direction of "Wings."

"Wings" imagines the older woman, Emily Stilson, finding herself in a hospital, incapable of understanding why and incapable of talking to staff. In her youth she had been a wing walker -- just what it says -- on her family's barnstorming tours, and the feeling of flying in space through clouds and seeking safe landing is lodged deep in her. Her sense in the hospital is that she has landed in alien territory and may be in the hands of captors.

In Emily's mind she articulates clearly to herself but cannot make out what the hospital personnel, doctor and nurse, are saying. Nor can we. At this point we see and hear Emily's surroundings as she does. This shifts as the play goes along. There are times we hear doctor and nurse clearly and Emily in gibberish. As Emily recuperates, aided by a therapist and group sessions, the fragments start to cohere to form a whole world.

Kopit brings us along with the same care he brings Emily along so that we experience as far as possible what it must be like for her. Snatches of memories, music, flying sounds, voices, words drift in and out of her consciousness very like clouds. She is up in the air, even if only metaphorically, trying to get her bearings, seeking a landing place on solid ground.

The striking, beautifully designed and executed set by Chris Schenk rings the small proscenium of the Daemen Theatre with cloud paintings. Large paintings figure as integral elements of the set, which uses extensive black background, plus black scrim, to abstract the spots Emily finds herself in, and to separate Emily from others in the early stages of her aphasia.

It could serve as the set for the play "Wings," which says something good about it. This loyalty to what Kopit was trying to do runs all through the musical and this performance directed by Randall Kramer. Kramer's decisions seem to me be perfect in every respect.

Tom Kostusiak's lighting takes full advantage of the impressionistic environment, and Joyce Schenk's costumes contribute to the look. A complicated mixture of live music (Michael G. Hake, musical director, and Daniel S. Acquisto) and sounds (planes, old recordings, wind, any number of things alone and overlapping) orchestrated on tape by designer Kevin Stevens is a critical part of this performance.

This piece is as close to musical theater, with the emphasis on theater, as we've seen for a long time in theaters around here. Kopit's play is worthy on its own. Allying it to music is a bold, adventurous idea. Fidelity to the play remains intact, which, given the track record of musicals, comes as a surprise. Not only does the music not intrude unnecessarily or deform the content of the play, it seems to me to quite intelligently reflect the play's content. It does this without giving up every claim to musical theater standards. There are lovely, and sometimes dissonant, songs, but also in the tradition, comic songs such as "Yum Yummy Yum" (a nurse attempting to feed a patient) and "A Recipe for Cheesecake" (a breakthrough by a brain-damaged young man in therapy session).

Sheila McCarthy's extraordinary performance is at the center of all this, and without it, all the well-positioned and accurate aesthetics wouldn't come to much. Joining her in small yet effective roles are John Fredo as doctor and later patient, Syndi Starr as nurse and patient, Kathy Weese as therapist, John T. Weisenburger as a patient.

The performance is under two hours with a break. Is the break necessary? Possibly for audience convenience. But when you're comfortably inside someone's head, thanks to McCarthy's comfort-zone performance, it seems rude to interrupt.

MUSICAL THEATER
Wings

Rating:**** 1/2

Musical with book and lyrics by Arthur Perlman, music by Jeffrey Lunden, based on the play by Arthur Kopit, about an aging aviatrix with a loss of memory.

Directed by Randall Kramer for Summerfare Musical Theatre, musical direction by Michael G. Hake, featuring Sheila McCarthy, John Fredo, Kathy Weese, Syndi Starr and John I. Weisenburger.

Performances continue Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 4 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m., through March 7. Performances in Daemen Theatre, Daemen College, 4380 Main St., Amherst (839-8540).

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