BWW Feature: WINGS: THE MUSICAL at Firehouse Theatre
In a brief discussion with the cast and creative team before their succeeding rehearsal, WINGS, opening at Firehouse on February 15th, bares an unmistakable feeling of importance and veneration.
Indeed, there was an intoxicating air of anticipation throughout the building - at least there was to me.
"This piece is not often performed," said director Kerrigan Sullivan.
With this in mind, such a case of sporadicity could arguably be attributed to the challenges inherent to the material - and the principal obligation for delivering legitimacy to such a densely contextual piece.
"Authenticity is key," said Sullivan.
WINGS is the musical adaptation of Arthur Kopit's play WINGS, which premiered at Yale in 1978. It would later go on to recognition "Off and On" Broadway, as well as a subsequent televised movie featuring original cast members Mary-Joan Negro and Constance Cummings.
In a haunting account of the occasional struggles of the human condition, WINGS chronicles the two year recovery period of one Emily Stilson who suddenly falls victim to a debilitating stroke. Once a daredevil pilot, the now-older Stilson uses the inside of her mind to take herself on illusory feats of flight. Yet on the outside, flanked by doctors and hospital attendants, she struggles to regain basic functions - most especially her ability to speak.
And in a particular move of sensitive brilliance, writer-and-lyricist Arthur Perlman and composer Jeffrey Lunden niftily conjure several bits of lyrics and music through Stilson's vocalizing exercises as she ardently pushes through the effects of her aphasia. It is a fascinating adroitness in musicality.
The musical's vocals (and acting rigors) are further augmented by the talents of Lauren Elens as Amy, the catalytic psychologist to Emily Stilson, played here by Bianca Bryan.
Bryan was sympathetic to the deft humility of playing such an enfeebled character, counterbalanced with playing Stilson's imagining of herself as a free-moving woman of liberated vitality.
"From the physicality to the speech patterns, I really haven't sung this kind of beast in a very long, long time. And it's very easy to take things too far," said Bryan, who incidentally viewed various pieces of video footage documenting aphasia patients in order to respectively incorporate such mannerisms into her performance.
The social underpinnings of such a personal story were not lost on this cast, either; several were or remain acquainted with such travailed individuals. Lucinda McDermott, who plays the roles of the Nurse and Mrs. Timmins, was particularly moved by the story in relation to her father's trials with similar ailments.
"It's evoking some strong memories," reflected McDermott in a tender moment of introspection.
Rounding out the company with Andrew Colletti (Doctor, Mr. Brambilla) and Landon Nagel (Billy), it's not necessarily an everyday occurrence - at least in this reporter's viewpoint - to witness a cast and creative team be so wholeheartedly doting and attentive towards a given theatrical piece. They genuinely care about delivering a trustworthy and unexploited account of the realities of a specified mental illness (which was Arthur Kopit's intent in and of itself, having created the character of Emily Stilson as an amalgamation of two women who were being treated at the exact same rehabilitation center where his father was recovering from his own stroke).
And if bringing the "authenticity" out wasn't enough, the show is roughly 85% sung through with the cast acting as their own stagehands, moving items such as doors and clouds into place. The team has their work cut out for them, which includes vocal coaching by Stephen Rudlin, and musical direction from Kim Fox who conducts an all-female orchestra.
"Aspects of the music are challenging," notes Fox. "There's also a lot of underscoring combined with the action on stage. It's a very unique way of storytelling."
In short, the cast and creative team are most-visibly eager to take their production straight up and out. If not beyond the stratosphere, then into the next best place: the deepest and most profound sensibilities of any given onlooker. I, for one, know that having witnessed some frightening instances of mental and wanton physical disorders with numerous friends and relatives, there's little doubt that I will get choked up at seeing WINGS for myself.
"Come see it," closes Fox.
I hope everyone does.
WINGS at the Firehouse Theatre plays from Thursday, February 15th to Saturday, March 10th.