Characters strike just the right notes in 'Old Wicked Songs'

September 19, 2008.By Renee Valois, Pioneer Press.

Not only is Theater Latte Da's new show threaded with music, it has all the tempo changes and varying emotional tones of a fine classical composition. Although it's not a musical per se, Jon Marans' script uses song as a metaphor for life — and music creates the philosophical underpinning to the piece.

It all starts when a young American piano prodigy shows up at the studio of an elderly music professor in Vienna. John Clarke Donahue's elaborate set evokes a man living at least partly in the past with its grand piano, gramophone and fainting couch. The romantic in professor Josef Mashkan reveals itself not only in the art on his walls, but via his encouragement to young Stephen Hoffman to gently seduce the piano — not rape it.

Raye Birk does a stellar turn as the aging professor who has great wisdom to share and terrible secrets to hide. Jonas Goslow makes young Stephen initially stiff in his approach to music and life; a technical virtuoso who lacks the passion to bring a piece to the height of genius. However, Stephen's saving grace is that he knows he needs help to move to the next level.

When the professor presses his hand against Stephen's diaphragm to teach him how to breathe properly, the young man recoils and the professor reassures him: "I get no joy from touching you. Of course, after so many years I get no joy from touching my wife either." The two trade jokes and barbs and there is plenty to laugh at in the first half.

By the end of the act, everything changes. The two have been working on Schumann's "Dichterliebe," exploring how joy and sorrow go hand in hand, and the script echoes the song's emotion, tumbling into darker territory. We discover why the German professor dismisses Jews, and Stephen returns from his tour of a concentration camp not just outraged, but changed.

Director Peter Rothstein uses the two characters — one too inexperienced and the other too experienced to dare to fully live — to create a bittersweet beauty. Throughout the show, the stubborn old Austrian and the arrogant young American play against each other like a bass and tenor in duet. When one is up the other is down, but ironically, it is their differences that create a satisfying harmony.

The end result is like the resolution of a dramatic piece of music, ending on just the right note.