Review: Old Wicked Songs powerfully staged by Center REP

By Pat Craig
Posted: 02/06/2013


It begins as something far too placid.

Lights come up on the ancient, Austrian studio, all dark wood with a fringe-covered grand piano, where Professor Josef Mashkan (Dan Hiatt) plays and sings, killing time as much as anything else.

Unknown to the professor, his new student, the talented but troubled Stephen Hoffman (Patrick Russell) enters the room quietly and eventually startles the professor. Stephen is there for a few months worth of singing lessons, at the insistence of Mashkan, who has agreed to give him piano instruction if he will voice work as a warm-up.

Hoffman isn't happy with the deal. Neither, it seems, is the gruff Professor Mashkan. And immediately, you figure this for another warmhearted tale of the egotistic student and the grumpy professor fighting like banjos and violas until both see the light and ride off into the sunset having learned a great lesson about being much better human beings.

That's how it starts, anyway, although the game is played in the rarefied air of classical music when Mashkan assigns Hoffman Robert Schumann's "Dichterliebe" to help the young man get his musical mojo back. Schumann had set the music to a much older poem by Heinrich Heine, adding his own magic to make the tale one of an older man with a more expansive view on love and life.

Within this score is where the emotional bombshells begin to explode, turning a play you maybe had not much hope for into an engaging, surprising and

Still, the Schumann composition is the vehicle upon which the piece rides, and one that forges the relationship between the professor and the young musician. And it gives Stephen a reason to come to Vienna and explore that part of Europe.

But "Old Wicked Songs" also allows for a wide-ranging look at politics, history, human understanding and the role of creativity and artistry in all of these things. It's a remarkable piece of theater with a story so deep and delicious it would be a near crime to give away anything but the sketchiest of details. Suffice to say it is so much than the story of grumpy old man and a fierce youthful ego reaching an accord.

Hiatt, a longtime favorite among Bay Area theater fans, and Russell perform remarkably. They inhabit their characters so thoroughly that each characterization they employ seems unique and believable.

Director Jessica Heidt has done an excellent job focusing a show that wades through music ranging from Schumann to Kurt Waldheim and traverses a good deal of personal and world history. She also manages to keep the show moving at a pitched pace that never seems hurried.

The show is played on an impressive and realistic set by Nina Ball, who has created the perfect lair for an old professor, right down to the things on the bookshelves and tables.


Center REP's production has been beautifully directed by Jessica Heidt

By George Heymont
Posted: 02/10/2013


What happens when a child prodigy peaks too soon and loses his spark? How can he succeed when he's lost his confidence and artistic fire? These questions --and many, many more -- are addressed in Old Wicked Songs, a beautiful and poignant drama by Jon Marans which is being presented by Center Rep up at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek.

As the play begins (and during its numerous scene changes), the audience hears the mellifluous voices of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Thomas Quasthoff singing excerpts from Robert Schumann's famous Dichterliebe, a song cycle based on poems by Heinrich Heine that capture the hot-headed passions of a young man. The setting is the studio of Professor Josef Mashkan (Dan Hiatt).

It's the spring of 1986 and Austrians are preparing to elect Kurt Waldheim as their ninth President. As Mashkan sits at the piano, reviewing the score for Schumann's Dichterliebe, one senses deep-seated emotions in his phrasing of the text. This is a man whose life experience has balanced ecstasy with agony, regrets with resuscitation, love with loss. He is older, sadder, and much wiser than the young man whose passions inspired the composer.

Enter Stephen Hoffman (Patrick Russell), a tightly-wound 25-year-old American concert pianist whose petulance, pomposity, overweening sense of entitlement (as well as his smug air of self-importance and near pathological lack of patience) are contributing to his artistic stagnation. Hoffman (who had expected to study with the great Professor Schiller) is less than pleased to learn that Schiller, who is on business in Munich, has deputized Mashkan to spend three months working with the young pianist.

Hoffman has arrived with the notion that, with his career as a concert soloist on the rocks, the next step is to become an accompanist because, after all, a vocalist's responsibility is to follow an accompanist's cues. While he may once have been strong in keyboard technique, Hoffman is totally lacking in any sense of teamwork or interpretative style. Like many child prodigies, his lack of life experience is a key factor in his artistic sterility.

As someone who has always been told that he is a great pianist, Hoffman takes umbrage at the idea that he must learn how to sing in order to become a professional accompanist. That's not his "fach," nor was it ever intended to be. When asked to interpret Heine's text, his English translations are about as soulful and introspective as Google's online translation software.

For the young American pianist, who is visiting Vienna for the first time, this trip is strictly business. But for Mashkan, Vienna and the Dichterliebe are about life, with all its inherent sadness and joy.

Not only is there an obvious clash of personalities, Hoffman is extremely judgmental (often downright snotty), a behavioral pattern which masks his terror of emotional vulnerability. Only after he succumbs to Mashkan's suggestion that he attend a performance at the Vienna Staatsoper, does Hoffman's passion for music start to boil up again and his artistic instincts reach the surface.

Whether making him pay for pastries or tricking him into singing, Mashkan keeps chipping away at his student's arrogance and emotional armor. But when Hoffman travels to Munich for a weekend to meet Professor Schiller and visit Dachau, he undergoes a deeply emotional transformation. Returning to Vienna with a yarmulke, he is caustic and condescending to Mashkan about the older man's frequent anti-Semitic remarks.

After listening to Stephen's unbridled criticism, Mashkan rolls up his sleeve and displays the numbers that were tattooed on his arm in a Nazi concentration camp.

Nina Ball's cozy, warm set provides a seductive atmosphere in which these two men can slowly peel away the scabs covering their emotional wounds as they work to understand the layers of Heine's poems, grasp what Schumann was trying to say in his music, and learn what insights the Dichterliebe can offer them about their own lives.

It's easy to see why Old Wicked Songs was nominated for the 1996 Pulitzer Prize For Drama. By contrasting Hoffman's metronome-obsessed, often soul-less renditions of songs from the Dichterliebe with Mashkan's more expansive interpretations -- as well as Russell's sweet, but untrained voice with the artistry of great lieder singers like Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Thomas Quasthoff --  this play demonstrates how art enriches our lives while deepening our appreciation for love, loss, joy, and sorrow.

Center Rep's production has been beautifully directed by Jessica Heidt (especially in the moment when Hoffman's defenses crumble). Heidt's staging benefits immensely from the fact that both actors are as adept at the keyboard as they are on their feet. Old Wicked Songs continues through March 2 and is well worth a visit.

Center REP creates beautiful and moving Old Wicked Songs

By Harmony Wheeler
Posted: 02/12/2013


Song echoes heart in Jon Marans' "Old Wicked Songs," a beautiful play that, like the classical music it celebrates, takes its time to mature story and soak in emotion and meaning. Much like the infamous Maria Callas account, "Master Class," "Old Wicked Songs" follows teacher and student as pasts divulge and talents unfold.

Piano prodigy Stephen Hoffman moves to Vienna hoping to revive his music and reason for playing. Instead, he finds himself forced to take lessons on vocals and piano accompaniment with a sarcastic, old professor. The professor, Joseph Mashkan, hands Stephen Schumann's Dichterliebe to memorize and sing with his pleasant, but not great voice.

The glorious piece becomes the narrator of the play, its poetic lyrics mirroring the action on stage and its magnificent melodies serving as both facilitators of dialogue and scene transitions; the play covers several months' time. Parts of the opus play during blackouts as the top border to the wall of the set lights up to reveal an exquisite wave pattern, much like the waves of music.

Kurt Landisman's light design also features the slow fading in and out of spotlights resembling the glimmer found when the suns shines just right through the perfect window. Scenic Designer Nina Ball also provides an old-fashioned studio full of books and even an old phonograph. It's a scene in which one can easily imagine the likes of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and other greats, perhaps even Schumann, himself, inhabiting.

The masterwork has the spirit of the greats. In addition to thought-provoking discussion of music theory and practice, Marans delves into issues of war, grief, justice and the human condition, especially revolving around the history of Austria and Jews. Bay area actors Dan Hiatt (a likeable, yet formidable professor) and Patrick Russell (a tense and growing Stephen) develop a strong chemistry between their characters. An authentic air hangs about their interpretations of these very real, very different men, clashing in much, but, even more, increasing in understanding of one another and of themselves.

Hiatt and Russell engage audiences in an amiable and well-paced staging from Director Jessica Heidt. As Schumann's score engulfs listeners, so Center REP Company succeeds in overwhelming the senses and feelings of its viewers.

Bay Area treasure Dan Hiatt has never been better. There's an extra pleasure in watching a master at work.

By Robert Lee Hall
Posted: 02/2013


The Holocaust haunted the second half of the 20th Century, and it haunts us still, but we can still sing. Songs, specifically Franz Schumann's cycle, Dicterliebe, set to Heinrich Heine's poetry, and the Holocaust mix it up in Jon Marans' Old Wicked Songs, now in a handsome, affecting production at Center REP in Walnut Creek.

The two-person drama is set in Vienna in the spring of 1986, when 25-year-old Stephen Hoffman, a prodigy whose gifts have deserted him - he hasn't played a concert for a year - slams into the rehearsal studio of Professor Josef Mashkan, a voice coach. The young man has come to Vienna in hopes os tudying piano accompaniment with noted Professor Schiller, but Schiller insists he study voice first, to better understand a singer's needs, and has passed him on to Mashkan for three months.

Angry and disappointed, Hoffman is rude to Mashkan, who doesn't sweeten their rapidly souring relationship by speculating, "I bet you're bad in bed."

This is music instruction?

It is in Mashkan's view, because he believes you can't separate who you are from the music you play, and he senses in the uptight young man who confronts him a pupil who needs life instruction as well as musical training, who needs to experience more joy and more pain.

So he provokes Hoffman, teases him, cajoles him, somehow convincing him to stick it out.

Thus begins the series of training sessions that make up Old Wicked Songs. They're strained at first. Hoffman doesn't like Mashkan's urging him to attend Vienna's Statsoper, but when he finally does - he sees a production of Pagliacci - he's ecstatic. The passion, the spectacle, the music seem to start him on the path to a new, more feeling person, and a better artist.

But Mashkan makes anti-semitic remarks that set Hoffman, a Jew, against him, and when the young man returns to Vienna after a visit to Dachau, they have it out. These concluding scenes are a bit predictable (Mashkan turns out to have concentration camp numbers tattooed on his forearm) but satisfying nonetheless.

The Center REP production, under the direction of Jessica Heidt, with musical direction by Brandon Adams, is both supple and sturdy. It's a fine piece of work, enhjanced by the talents of Nina Ball, who creates a wonderfully detailed set, and Kurt Landsiman (lighting), Callie S. Floor (costumes) and Jeff Mockus (sound).

The wonderfully capable actors interact with verve and charm. As Stephen Hoffman, Patrick Russell convincingly embodies a troubled, sensitive young man who wears his heart on his sleeve. As Josef Mashkan, Bay Area treasure Dean Hiatt has never been better. Ther's an extra pleasure in watching a master at work, and that's the sort of pleasure Hiatt gives here, by inflection and gesture and sudden hops and swoops. His Viennese accent is an added enjoyment, for which dialect coach Lynne Soffer, gets credit.

Old Wicked Songs plays at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek until March 2, followed by Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps, and in the Off-Center season, Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World.

Old Wicked Songs

By Charles Jarrett
Posted: 02/2013


Music Takes Over Lesher Center

I experienced true entertainment at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek this past weekend when I took in two outstanding productions, one a treasured 1950s musical, “Singin' in the Rain,” and the other, “Old Wicked Songs,” a political drama immersed in music.

First, I have to congratulate Michael Butler's foresight in securing the rights to “Old Wicked Songs,” an insightful, passionate and witty tale of conflict and bonding written by Jon Marans and nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in drama in 1996.

Second, last week I wrote about my excitement with the soon-to-open Diablo Theatre Company's production of an old-time musical favorite, “Singin' in the Rain.” After attending a rehearsal, I was thoroughly enraptured with what has to be described as one of their most vibrant, exciting and rewarding musical productions in recent memory! I encouraged my readers to not miss this show and after seeing the full production I'm even more enthusiastic about the show.

“Old Wicked Songs”

But first, “Old Wicked Songs.” This drama is about coming of age and maturation, the acquisition of wisdom, socially and politically by learning to accept “what is and what cannot be changed,” all while internalizing the value of sadness and joy in the balancing process. On the surface it is a tale of two men, probably one or two generations apart in age, and a million miles apart in social and political experience.

Underneath the dialogue is a stark reminder of how different and yet how in many ways the same we all must be. It is a superbly written tale, which runs the full gamut of emotions in its dark and passionate course. I came away deeply pleased and satisfied with this production.

Stephen Hoffman (Patrick Russell) is a 25-year-old musical prodigy suffering from performance burn out, and his artistic block has left him unable to work for the past year. He is seeking a change in musical environment by traveling to Vienna, Austria, in 1986, hoping to immerse himself a new phase of accompaniment guidance training with Professor Schiller, a highly regarded professor of music.

However, upon arrival, he is distressed to learn that Schiller has relegated his first month of training and study to a more subordinate vocal teacher, Professor Josef Mashkan (Dan Hiatt). This alteration was made without advising the young man. Thoroughly infuriated by Schiller's action in reassigning him to a vocal instructor for his first three months of instruction, Hoffman feels he will be wasting his time. This makes his study with Mashkan into a tenuous, argumentative and difficult exercise.

Hoffman can't understand why as a classical pianist and vocal accompanist he should have to take lessons from a vocal coach. Unable to persuade Schiller to take him under his wing directly, Hoffman finally relents and suffers along with Mashkan's demands that he study Robert Schumann's 16 love song poetry cycle titled “Dichterliebe.”

This play is a story about two musicians and how music has imprinted their lives. Mashkan tries to impress upon young Hoffman that there is both “sadness and joy” in music and that Hoffman should experience real life examples to better connect him to the massage of Schumann's famous song cycle.

Both men have information about themselves that they do not share readily with each other as the year is 1986 and Austria in in the middle of a contentious political election. As the story unfolds, we gradually learn more about these two men, their backgrounds, political views and where they stand on the upcoming election.

Will the two protagonists be able to cross the generational divide and reconcile their differences? I don't want to give away any more of this very powerful, thought-provoking and often humorous story. Director Jessica Heidt has engaged two superlative professional actors in this two-actor play. This is definitely an engaging play, well worth an investment in time and money.

This intriguing play continues through March 2 in the Lesher Center at 1601 Civic Drive in Walnut Creek. For information, call 943-7469 or go online to www.CenterREP.org.

A Powerful Production of Jon Marans' Old Wicked Songs

By Richard Connema
Posted: 02/2013


It has been a long time since audiences have seen Jon Marans' commanding drama Old Wicked Songs. It was produced by the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia before a New York production at the Promenade Theatre in 1996. There was also a production at the Gielgud Theatre in London's West End and in its venue city, Vienna's English theatre in Austria, just several years ago.

Old Wicked Songs takes place in the spring of 1986 as Kurt Waldheim, a former Nazi, is running for president of Austria. A young American piano prodigy, the tightly wound Stephen Hoffman (Patrick Russell), has come to Vienna to get his music mojo back. He is assigned first to vocal teacher Professor Joseph Mashkan, who gives him the "Dichterliebe" song cycle by Robert Schumann to learn. He is unhappy that he must spend a month or two with the teacher and sing the cycle rather than play the sequence on piano. For the next two hours the audience sees an inspirational journey of two very different men with music as their one common bond. Both have pasts that are bought out, and they find a way to break through those pasts.

Jon Marans' drama allows for a wide range of politics, including an allegory of Austria's struggles with its Nazi past plus an understanding of the role of inspiration and skillfulness in all of these things. We see Stephen Hoffman, who is a Jew, try to put some perceptive into this history, even after visiting nearby Dachau. We also learn of Professor Mashkan's past during the 1940-1946 period when Austria was part of Germany.

In the Center Rep production, Dan Haitt gives a splendid natural performance with a perfect Austrian accent as Professor Mashkan. Patrick Russell is outstanding as the uptight American Stephan. He successfully transforms from a droll, wisecracking person to one with a deep affection for the Professor. Russell also has perfect vocal chops to sing Robert Schumann's lyrics. Both dominate the stage in this production, thanks to the sharp direction of Jessica Heidt.

Nina Ball has created an impressive and realistic set of the teacher's apartment, down to the little things on the bookshelves and table. It looks like a place where a professor of music would live. Lighting Designer Kurt Landisman's lights are perfect for the production. Musical Direction by Brando Adams brings out the clearest of Robert Schumann's "Dichterliebe."

Old Wicked Songs plays through March 2nd at the Lesher Center for the Performing Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek. For tickets call 925-943-7469 or visit www.CenterRep.org. Next up for Center Rep is Alfred Hitchcock's 39 Steps opening on March 29 and running through April 27th.