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Theater Review: Compelling production hits all the right keys

February 18, 2012|By Lynne Heffley
  • Tavis Danz and John Towey star in the Colony Theatre Production of " Old Wicked Songs," written by Jon Marans and directed by Stephanie Vlahos and now playing at the Colony Theatre in Burbank. (Photo by Michael Lamont)
Tavis Danz and John Towey star in the Colony Theatre Production…

First things first. There’s some fine piano playing in Jon Marans’ play, “Old Wicked Songs,” at the Colony Theatre in Burbank. No faking it here, as in many, if not most productions of this drama of longing, loss and letting go.

Set in Vienna, Marans’ 1996 Pulitzer Prize finalist is orchestrated with the emotional resonance of its defining framework: Robert Schumann’s haunting “Dichterliebe” song cycle based on the poems of Heinrich Heine, and the controversial Kurt Waldheim run for president in a country still attempting to exorcise the ghost of World War II.

Finding two actors able to credibly express nuances of pain and redemption through the play’s spoken narrative as well as its musical one — which includes excerpts from the Schumann song cycle as well as brief snatches of Tchaikovsky, Liszt, Beethoven and Bach — is no small plus.

In pairing memorable theater veteran John Towey, whose career spans decades on Broadway and regional stages, with youthful counterpart Tavis Danz, the Colony production has come up trumps. Both men prove to be accomplished classical pianists whose in-the-moment performances at the Steinway grand give the play added immediacy.

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No less significant is the fact that director Stephanie Vlahos, a former professional opera singer-turned theater artist, has shaped the production with sensitive authority and a rigorous avoidance of bathos.

Professor Josef Mashkan (Towey) is a singing teacher at a university in Vienna. Danz plays Stephen, a brilliant and bitter young American pianist tied up in psychological knots and suffering from burnout. He has come to Vienna in an attempt to reclaim his confidence under the tutelage of a famous professor of piano, and is dismayed to find that his mentor has ruled that as a prerequisite, he must first study singing.

Worse, the assigned singing teacher is Mashkan, an elderly eccentric who cracks jokes, unsettles his uptight student by comparing the piano to a beautiful woman who must be seduced (“she must be flirted with, not pounced on”) and shamelessly demands payment for the pastries he serves as refreshment.

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