"The Music Lesson"
Stamford Theatre Works, Stamford
It is not surprising to discover that Tammy Ryan's "The Music Lesson" was commissioned for young audiences. This tale of two music teachers (Irena and Ivan), refugees from war-torn Sarajevo, carries a strong, upbeat message which young people would have no difficulty understanding. Whatever the horrors and trials life brings, says "The Music Lesson," one can find strength and meaning in both music and human relationships. As one character puts it, "but then I hold my violin and I am alive again. And when I play in a little room, I am not afraid."
Perhaps Ryan can be faulted for simplifying this message and for offering such a predictable, happily-ever-after ending. Nonetheless, though unashamedly sentimental, it is a most appealing piece.
And director Steve Karp makes the most of his material, adroitly handling both present and past, reality and memory. There is a touch of magic to Karp's usual straightforward, no-nonsense style. When Irina drifts into memories of the past, her favorite Sarajevo pupil Maja appears behind a scrim, as do musicians (pianist Deborah Kahan and Violinist Marina Kitaychik). And whenever some one on stage plays an instrument, it is make-believe, the real music being provided behind the scrim. The effect is delightful. The musical direction under David Bishop, understandably, plays a vital role in "The Music Lesson," and selections from Bach and others considerably enhance the story.
As to the story itself, it is 1996 and Ivan and Irena have settled in Pittsburgh, determined to forge a new life."What little life is left us, we must live it. It is all you can do," says Ivan. But Irena lives unhappily in the past, recalling her lost pupils. Ivan, by chance acquires two young pupils when he meets a woman in the supermarket. The boy is a promising young violinist whom Ivan takes to at once. But it is Irena's fate to get the sullen, resentful 14-year-old daughter who hates the piano. "That hoodlum," Irena summarizes, comparing her to the gifted Maja. It doesn't take too much imagination to see where this will go and to determine the outcome of this unholy alliance.
Karp has assembled an all-round fine cast to play out these roles. In particular, the exquisite Andrea Sooch gives a haunting performance as the lost Irena. But Robyn Ganeles as Maja and Lily Burd as Kat offer an effective contrast of the two teen-age girls, and Michael Demattia is most appealing as the little violinist. Solid performances from Cullen Wheeler as Ivan and Dori Legg as Mrs. Johnson complete the cast. Sooch and Wheeler, incidentally, never let their accents slip, as is so often the case, but create consistently believable characters.
Without a doubt, school audiences of all ages should be brought to this show. As for older theatergoers, this is for any one who loves a happy ending. If only the real world would provide the same!
-- Irene Backalenick
Nov. 7, 2004