Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Colony Theatre's Old Wicked Songs

Tavis Danz and John Towey. Photo by Michael Lamont

A beautiful production of Jon Marans' Old Wicked Songs is currently charming audiences at The Colony Theatre in Burbank. The Pulitzer Prize nominated play about a burned out American piano prodigy and an aging Austrian music teacher resonates delicately on the Colony stage as it unravels secrets from the past and allows each man the opportunity to find his way back to himself.

Stephen Hoffman (Tavis Danz) is the pianist trying to overcome his inability to play and Professor Josef Mashkan (John Towey) is the singing teacher who struggles to help him recapture his joy for music. It is a poignant journey as each learns to find value in a life that has become meaningless.

Classical music lovers will find the play especially moving because it uses Schumann’s Dichterliebe as the mechanism through which its characters learn to speak the same language. It is a perfect vehicle for the teacher’s lessons and any student of music who has a relationship with the song cycle will find it especially meaningful - though you don’t need to be familiar with it to experience its full impact.

Schumann’s settings of Heinrich Heine’s poems are used with great impact to underscore the subtext of the scenes, from the haunting insistence of “Im wunderschönen Monat Mai,” which speaks delicately of suffering and longing in the beautiful month of May, through “Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube, die Sonne,” a jewel of a song that interestingly compels its singer to speed through the vocal line on one breath, to “Ich grolle nicht,” filled with bitter images of night in a cold lover’s empty heart.

Stephanie Vlahos directs with great sensitivity and elicits compelling performances from both Towey and Danz. Old Wicked Songs is often done with pre-recorded music but because these actors are also musicians who are able to play the music, it deepens the theatrical experience and makes it even more emotionally engaging. One can only congratulate The Colony creative team for finding two actors with such a specific set of skills to do justice to the piece.

Sound is essential to the success of the play and Drew Dalzell's work is pitch perfect. Stephen Gifford’s gorgeous set is impeccable in its detail and Jared A. Sayeg’s lighting casts a luminous glow. If there was ever such a thing as a love affair between lighting and a face, it can be seen in the way Sayeg highlights Towey’s silent thoughts. It is quite simply, divine.

Old Wicked Songs runs through March 4 at the  Colony Theatre, 555 North Third Street, Burbank. Reservations: 818 558-7000 x 15.

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