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Old Wicked Songs

New Jewish Theater, 2016

Andrea Torrence – St. Louis THEATRE SNOB

Jon Marans' Pulitzer Prize-nominated play offers a lot of layers underneath a facade that seems, initially, predictable. Stephen Hoffman is a 25 year old piano prodigy who’s burned out, and though he’s a “superb technician,” he’s lost touch with his passion. He has traveled to Vienna, Austria to study accompaniment with a Professor Schiller, but learns, much to his irritation, that he must first spend three months with Professor Mashkan to study singing.

Why singing? Well, by Schiller’s reckoning, before sitting in front of those black and white keys, an accompanist has to experience the other side of the equation -- the singing part, for a broader understanding of that connection. As portrayed by Will Bonfiglio, Hoffman’s a tense, walled-off young man from the minute he steps into Josef Mashkan’s studio -- flinching at the threat of a hand on his shoulder and impervious to Mashkan’s natural charm. Jerry Vogel is perfectly cast as Professor Mashkan, who feels deeply, musically and otherwise. Intimate, grumbly and funny, with an anti-Jewish veneer he displays like a shield, he tries to urge Hoffman to tap into the emotional side of the music -- a probing that peels away the layers of both characters.

Mashkan and Hoffman’s developing relationship is couched within the piece they work on together -- Robert Schumann’s song cycle, Dichterliebe (A Poet’s Love”). Really, this piece serves as a third character in the play. The dissonance and resolution of the song’s cycle taps into the play’s dynamics, with old hurts revisiting fresh scars, and director Tim Ocel pulls it all out nicely. Dunsi Dai’s set of Mashkan’s studio is lovely, complimented by Maureen Berry’s lighting design, and Michele Friedman Siler’s costume design informs the characters, especially Hoffman, with his attire loosening up as his character does.

This tear-jerking education in music offers a study in much more than just that, with the music craftily integrated into an alluring, poignant story.

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