Arthur Kopit's "Wings" might not seem like musical theater material. But then, this story of a stroke victim, told from her point of view, probably didn't sound like it would make much of a play, either.
Fell's Point Corner Theatre's production, however, under the stage direction of Bill Kamberger and musical direction of Steven Zumbrun, ranks among the very finest community theater productions.
Much of the credit belongs to Nancy Kelso, in the lead role of Emily Stilson, a former aviator and wing-walker felled by a stroke. Kelso is on stage for the entire production, and though that lasts only about 70 minutes, she rarely stops singing. All of this singing is not without justification. Stroke patients suffering from aphasia often retain the ability to sing, a program note informs us.
Kelso sings Emily's thoughts, while we hear the other characters -- doctor, nurse, etc. -- initially as she hears them, as a cacophony of gibberish. At first her thoughts are also confused ("I can't think the word," she sings). Then she sings the responses that Emily can't make and her doctor can't hear.
After Emily begins working with a therapist, she improves enough to move to a rehab facility, and the bond between her and Molly Moores, as the empathetic therapist, is touching, as is Emily's interaction with her fellow patients.
The intricate score -- by two former Marylanders, composer Jeffrey Lunden and lyricist Arthur Perlman, who also wrote the book -- is of the non-stop, through-composed variety, with little spoken dialogue. A few scenes, however, contain more clearly delineated songs. Linda Jones, as the Nurse, does a stirring job with one of these, and Jeff Burch is also notable as a cheerful patient skilled at baking.
Kamberger's staging makes stunning use of Russell Wooldridge's streamlined set whose movable hospital partitions variously indicate Emily's world closing in, or, later, opening up.
Though the musical's subject matter might lead you to expect it to be depressing, the combination of Lunden and Perlman's transcendent score and Kelso's compelling performance make "Wings" so uplifting, it soars.
Show times at Fell's Point Corner Theatre, 251 S. Ann St., are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays, through March 7. Tickets are $15. Call 410-276-7837.
`The Drum' at Arena
Arena Players' historical chronicle, "The Drum," conceived and directed by Troy Burton, got its start in 1997 at Douglass High School, where Burton is on the faculty. He expanded it for Arena Players' Youtheatre last season. For its latest incarnation, as a main stage presentation, he has expanded it further.
The result incorporates text and songs by sources ranging from Burton and Arena Players poet/performer jaki-terry to Langston Hughes, Frederick Douglass, Wynton Marsalis and Reg E. Gaines, author of the book of the Broadway musical "Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk." The latter is represented by more than a half-dozen selections, presented dramatically, but without the tap-dancing component at the core of "Noise/Funk" (which opens a one-week run at the Mechanic Theatre tomorrow).
Although the production is uneven, there are a number of memorable moments. Borrowing a device from Douglas Turner Ward's "Day of Absence," Burton presents a black actor (Robert Chew) in white face, representing such characters as a missionary and a slave auctioneer.
The diversified choreography by Yvette Shipley-Perkins is highlighted by a scene in which the actors become a chain of slaves, groaning and pulling their way down the theater aisle. There's also a strong rendition of Hannibal Lokumbe's "How Long?" by singer Gerrell Ross, and jaki-terry's lyrical words and flowing movements exert an almost maternal influence over the production, tying its varied elements together.
Show times at Arena Players, 801 McCulloh St., are 8: 30 p.m. Fridays, 7: 30 p.m. Saturdays and 4 p.m. Sundays, through March 14. Tickets are $18. Call 410-728-6500.
`Jitney' broke records
It's official -- August Wilson's "Jitney" broke the records for attendance and single-ticket sales at Center Stage, making it far and away the most popular show in the theater's history.
Here are the final figures: $302,087.27 in single-ticket sales (not counting subscription sales); attendance, 24,813. The previous record holders were last season's production of "H.M.S. Pinafore," with $186,746.56 in single-ticket sales, and the 1994 production of Wilson's "Two Trains Running," with attendance of 23,160.
This past weekend, the play about gypsy cab drivers in Pittsburgh opened at the Studio Arena Theatre in Buffalo, N.Y. From there it goes to the Geva Theatre in Rochester, N.Y., and in June it will re-open at Chicago's Goodman Theatre for a 10-week run.
The Baltimore Playwrights Festival is presenting several free staged readings, beginning with a marathon at 11 a.m. Saturday. The line-up includes "Gladys in Wonderland" by Rosemary Toohey; "Keeping the Faith" by Carol Weinberg; "Falling Grace" by Mark Scharf; and "Stand by Your Car" by Juliet Johnson. All readings are held at Fell's Point Corner Theatre, 251 S. Ann St. Call 410-276-2153.