Theater Review: Compelling production hits all the right keys

First things first. There’s some fine piano playing in Jon Marans’ play, “Old Wicked Songs,” at the Colony Theatre in Burbank. No faking it here, as in many, if not most productions of this drama of longing, loss and letting go.

Set in Vienna, Marans’ 1996 Pulitzer Prize finalist is orchestrated with the emotional resonance of its defining framework: Robert Schumann’s haunting “Dichterliebe” song cycle based on the poems of Heinrich Heine, and the controversial Kurt Waldheim run for president in a country still attempting to exorcise the ghost of World War II.

Finding two actors able to credibly express nuances of pain and redemption through the play’s spoken narrative as well as its musical one — which includes excerpts from the Schumann song cycle as well as brief snatches of Tchaikovsky, Liszt, Beethoven and Bach — is no small plus.

In pairing memorable theater veteran John Towey, whose career spans decades on Broadway and regional stages, with youthful counterpart Tavis Danz, the Colony production has come up trumps. Both men prove to be accomplished classical pianists whose in-the-moment performances at the Steinway grand give the play added immediacy.

No less significant is the fact that director Stephanie Vlahos, a former professional opera singer-turned theater artist, has shaped the production with sensitive authority and a rigorous avoidance of bathos.

Professor Josef Mashkan (Towey) is a singing teacher at a university in Vienna. Danz plays Stephen, a brilliant and bitter young American pianist tied up in psychological knots and suffering from burnout. He has come to Vienna in an attempt to reclaim his confidence under the tutelage of a famous professor of piano, and is dismayed to find that his mentor has ruled that as a prerequisite, he must first study singing.

Worse, the assigned singing teacher is Mashkan, an elderly eccentric who cracks jokes, unsettles his uptight student by comparing the piano to a beautiful woman who must be seduced (“she must be flirted with, not pounced on”) and shamelessly demands payment for the pastries he serves as refreshment.

Yet despite the professor’s seeming buffoonery, volatile mood swings and intimations of desperation and melancholy, the unorthodox lessons begin to take root. Stephen gradually thaws in the heat of the older man’s fervor for the confluence of sadness and joy that is “at the core of beautiful music, as it is at the core of life.”

His respect and fondness for the old teacher grow, only to be checked by Mashkan’s jarring anti-Semitic remarks, leading the younger man to a divergent exploration of his own identity.

The revelatory confrontation between the two that follows is at the heart of Marans’ play and it is deeply affecting here.

Towey’s performance, a joy to watch throughout, is a masterwork of emotional complexity. And while Danz tends toward the one-note in Stephen’s moments of anger and disconnect, he conveys the younger man’s discovery of the poetry of music and his awakening to passion and tenderness — in life and at the keyboard — with moving conviction.

The design elements integral to this well-produced play begin with Stephen Gifford’s lavishly detailed set, with dressing and prop design by MacAndMe. It evokes Old World nostalgia and the shadows beneath: louvered wood shutters, high crown moldings, arched doorways, dark paneling, shawl-draped grand piano, sheet music and songbooks from another age.

Drew Dalzell and Jared A. Sayeg provide sterling sound and lights, respectively, while Kate Bergh’s costumes underscore the evolution of the characters’ cultural and psychological divide.

LYNNE HEFFLEY writes regularly on theater and the arts for Marquee.

“Old Wicked Songs,” Colony Theatre, 555 N. Third St., Burbank, 8 p.m. Thursday through Friday, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Post-show Q&A, Feb. 23. Ends March 4. Tickets: $20-$42. (818) 558-7000, Ext. 15,

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