New York and Connecticut theater reviews and news

Ethnic Theater - Jewish

"Old Wicked Songs"
Westport Country Playhouse, Westport, Connecticut

When “Old Wicked Songs” erupted on the New York stage eleven years ago, I saw it at the Jewish Repertory Theatre. It had been transported from Philadelphia, where it had its premiere, to the JRT home at Playhouse 91.

It was a momentous experience, one which blew me away, as they say. At that time, I wrote, “On rare occasions, there are theatrical pieces that are sheer magic. Everything is in place: brilliant writing, absorbing characters, exciting performances, and an all-out emotional clout. Seeing New York shows almost daily, I rarely have this experience, but, when it happens, I realize once again why I pursue this endeavor so unflaggingly. Such was the case this past weekend….with ‘Old Wicked Songs.’”

Why did the play pack such a clout for me? It may have been the times—my own, and that of the world. Rabin had just been killed, a loss many of us felt as we had felt the loss of our own leaders. I was no doubt reacting to both the news and the play.

“Old Wicked Songs” is a tale of finding one’s Jewish identity, a theme which had considerable personal meaning for me at the time.

Now, looking back, from a more cynical, more jaded, older viewpoint, I think I may have been extravagant. Yet the fact is that “Old Wicked Songs” is a strong, complex play, which won several theater awards at that time and gained a Pulitzer prize nomination for playwright Jon Marans.

But “Old Wicked Songs,” it turns out, has staying powers as well. In our greater New York City area, a strong revival has been mounted at the Westport Country Playhouse in Westport, Connecticut. This time around the tale goes beyond two men and a piano. Much more emphasis is placed on Schumann’s romantic song cycle, his “Dichterliebe,” which is played and sung throughout. The play’s title, in fact, is based on a poem of Heine, a German-Jewish poet, which provides the lyrics for Schumann’s music.

But the story remains intact. Stephen, a young American Jew and a concert pianist, has come to Vienna to study with one Professor Schiller, a noted piano teacher. Stephen’s playing, by his own acknowledgment, is technically brilliant, but lacks passion. He hopes to find that missing element in Vienna.

By Prof. Schiller’s orders, he is obliged first to study with a voice teacher named Professor Josef Mashkan, who will teach him to sing German lieder, thus preparing him as a piano accompanist. Neither is happy with the arrangement, not the brash arrogant young American nor the embittered shabby old teacher.

But gradually each begins to impact on the other, and along the way each comes to new self-awareness through acknowledgment of the past and understanding of the present. Both lives change. To detail those changes here would be to give away the show. Let us just say that they change.

“Old Wicked Songs” is a complex piece, with many themes—teacher/pupil relationships, for one, the power of redemption through music, for another, the discovery of one’s Jewish self-identity, still another. While filled with tragic elements, considering Mashkan’s background, the story is shot through with gentle humor. Mashkan, for example, constantly offers Stephen pastries, but charges for the treats.

In this current production, both Joe Paulik as the young man and Michael Cristofer as the Professor are a joy to watch, though the show is not without its flaws. The German accent Cristofer effects often muddies the lines. And Director Loy Arcenas’ set is too large, too grand, for the shabby atelier it is meant to be.

But one can overlook these flaws in considering the larger scheme. “Old Wicked Songs” is a gentle tender piece which goes to the heart of things, and is not to be missed.

-- Irene Backalenick
Oct. 22, 2006

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