OLD WICKED SONGS Beautifully Done at Bristol Riverside

by Walter Bender

OLD WICKED SONGS is the newest offering from Bristol Riverside Theatre. This drama by Jon Marans pairs Keith Baker and David Kenner as a music professor and his student in 1986 Vienna. Stephen Hoffman (Kenner) is a piano prodigy who has come to Vienna to study with a piano teacher only to discover he must first study with Professor Mashkan (Baker) who is a voice teacher. Hoffman is resentful of this unexpected development, and agrees to a 3-week “trial” before insisting on a change. The 3 weeks become months, and the evolving storyline is the plot of this wonderful play.

(From L-R) David Kenner and Keith Baker in Bristol Riverside Theatre's OLD WICKED SONGS. Running to December 5, this Pulitzer Prize nominated drama explores the fascinating connections between art and guilt, compassion and identity as it mirrors the structures and themes of the piece they study -- Schumann's Dichterliebe. (Photo credit: Susan D. Atkinson)

The play revolves around Mashkan and Hoffman working through the Dichterliebe, a cycle of 16 songs by Robert Schumann and Heinrich Heine. The music and the poetry of the lyrics interplay beautifully with the story and the developing relationship between the two characters. Mashkan believes that in order to be a great musician, one must feel the “sadness and joy” of life, to express it in one’s music. Hoffman is a burned-out musician, and cannot express himself at first. Mashkan is (seemingly) anti-Semitic, Hoffman is a Jew. These differences among others make for some very lively interplay.

Mr. Baker and Mr. Kenner do amazing work in this production. Kenner is very wooden at first, physically and emotionally, showing the depth of his burnout, yet the underlying need to re-learn the joy of music. His character’s development throughout the play is wonderful to watch…there are mis-steps along the way, each bringing more revelations. Baker is outstanding as the older professor with secrets he does not wish to share, yet has a need to teach this young man about music and life. The chemistry between these two grows throughout the production and has amazing electricity by the end.

The set is cramped and sparse, befitting a poor musician in Vienna, yet allows the actors to move about freely, and the canvas back wall allows the audience to see reactions from the actors as they leave that otherwise would be lost. The lighting cleverly accents the piano and Victrola as needed, and allows the back wall to “vanish” when necessary.

The music of the Dichterliebe is performed throughout the production. I am honestly not sure how much of the piano playing is done live and how much is recorded. If it’s all live, the actors are amazing pianists as well…if not, they move seamlessly from live to recorded, as there are parts where it has to be done live.

There is a lot to like about this production. It has very little humor, but the interaction between the actors flows from comedy to drama without a missed beat. I recommend the trip to the Bristol Riverside Theatre to see this beautiful production.

by Jon Marans
Directed by Jon Marans
November 16 – December 5, 2010
Bristol Riverside Theatre
120 Radcliffe Street
Bristol, PA 19007

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