No L.A.-area theater has a better track record with two-character “odd couple” plays that Burbank’s The Colony, which over the past half decade has won acclaim—along with numerous awards—for its popular two-handers, including Rounding Third, Trying, Educating Rita, Visiting Mr. Green, and Grace And Glorie. To this list can now be added the Colony’s nigh-on perfect revival of Jon Marans’ 1996 Pulitzer Prize-nominated Old Wicked Songs.

Set in 1986 Vienna, the year that former UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim campaigned for (and won) the Austrian Presidency despite revelations of a WWII Nazi past, Old Wicked Song’s “odd couple” are elderly Viennese music professor Josef Mashkan (John Towey) and young American pianist Stephen Hoffman (Tavis Danz), assigned against his will to study singing under Mashkan’s tutelage.

Once a promising piano prodigy, Stephen has crashed and burned, so much so that it’s been a year now since his last public performance. Given that the American has come to Austria believing he’ll be studying piano with master professor Schiller, news of his prerequisite vocal assignment does not sit well with the cranky young man. In fact, Stephen is ready to bolt before his initial lesson with Mashkan has even gotten started.

Naturally, Stephen sticks around (or there would be no Old Wicked Songs), and over the course of the play’s two acts and three or so months, there develops between teacher and pupil the same kind of age-and-culture clash that made Trying, Visiting Mr. Green, and Grace And Glorie such richly satisfying experiences.  The sadness and joy of composer Robert Schumann’s song cycle Dichterliebe and the poetry of Heinrich Heine, a night at the opera, and a visit to the Nazi death camp Dachau form additional parts of Stephen’s European education in the most powerful and unexpected of ways.  That neither Mashkan nor Stephen will exit Old Wicked Songs the same people they were at its start is a given, as it is that we in the audience will find our own first impressions significantly altered by the end of the two hours we spend with the mismatched duo.

What sets Old Wicked Songs apart from any of the previously mentioned “odd couple” plays is its music. Not only do professor and student perform excerpts from Dichterliebe, recorded performances underscore the play’s numerous scene changes along with setting the tone for what is to follow. Making the Colony production all the more effective is having the roles of Mashkan and Stephen entrusted to actors as adept at the keyboard as they are at bringing Marans’ words and characters to life. (The original New York production entrusted Stephen’s playing to a pre-programmed Yamaha Diskaver piano, as numerous later productions have done for one or both characters.) Those like this reviewer fortunate enough to be assigned house-right seats will get the added pleasure of seeing Towey’s and Danz’s nimble fingers tickling the ivories.

Playwright Marans has expressed in writing how vital it is that productions of Old Wicked Songs have a musical director on hand to supervise piano and vocal sequences. The Colony has killed two birds with a single stone by securing the creative services of performer-director Stephanie Vlahos, whose Christmas staging of Giancarlo Menotti’s Amahl And The Night Visitors has been a Pasadena Playhouse treat these past two Decembers. Vlahos knows her music as well as she does her acting, and as director of the Colony production has secured pitch-perfect performances from its two stars.

Though Towey comes across a good decade older than the late-50s Marans assigns Mashkan, having a 70ish professor works very much in the production’s favor, heightening the differences between teacher and pupil along with making for a more physically vulnerable Mashkan to play alongside the strapping young Stephen. The veteran stage and screen actor does powerful, multilayered work as a man facing his own life crises, investing Mashkan with a lifetime of wisdom and a strength forged out of tragedy.

Opposite Towey, the memorable Danz excels in a role requiring equal parts acting talent and musical gifts, both of which the UCLA grad possesses in abundance. As we observe the stiff-as-a-board bundle of nerves, self-doubts, and bravado Danz first gives us begin slowly to relax and unwind under his mentor’s tutelage, the young actor-pianist reveals considerable depth in his nuanced, touching performance.

Old Wicked Songs’ behind-the-scene stars are its lighting and sound designers, Jared A. Sayeg and Drew Dalzell. Sayeg’s lighting is as richly varied as any single-set lighting design could possibly be, heightening dramatic tension, revealing times of day and changing seasons, and convincing us in evening scenes that the light we are seeing emanates entirely from table lamps scattered around Mashkan’s studio. Dalzell’s sound design allows live performances to segue ever so smoothly into recorded passages, provides just-right effects, and in one particularly dramatic scene, combines with Sayeg’s lighting for a rip-roaring lightning-and-thunder-storm sequence.

Scenic designer extraordinaire Stephen Gifford gives us a finely-detailed Vienna rehearsal studio, with carefully strewn music scores and a lifetime of memorabilia courtesy of MacAndME’s properties design and set dressing. Kate Bergh’s costumes reveal the two characters’ personalities, the change of months, and in Stephen’s case, the character’s gradual loosening up during his stay in Vienna. Mary K Klinger is production manager.

Once again kudos are due Colony Theatre Artistic Director Barbara Beckley for finding a gem of a play and precisely the right artists to bring it to life on the Colony stage. Towey and Danz are actor-musicians at the top of their game, and Old Wicked Songs is intimate musical dramedy at its most compelling and entertaining.

Colony Theatre, 555 North Third Street, Burbank.

–Steven Stanley
February 9, 2012
Photos: Michael Lamont

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