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[whitespace] Old Wicked Songs
Voice of Experience: Jay Douglas (right) learns about life and song from Ray Reinhardt in San José Repertory Theatre's new production.

An elderly vocal coach leads his student through a poetic song cycle in 'Old Wicked Songs'

By Anne Gelhaus

ANY VOCAL COACH worth his salt will tell his students that technical skill by itself does not a singer make. If there is no emotional connection to the song, there is no music. Old Wicked Songs is about how one musician makes this connection with the help of his teacher. The process the two characters go through to get there is what makes Jon Marans' script resonate; while the experiences they draw from are profound, their stories exist to serve the music.

The San José Repertory Theatre honors this relationship between singer and song in its current production, allowing the uneasy friendship developing between Professor Mashkan (Ray Reinhardt) and young Stephen Hoffman (Jay Douglas) to feed directly into their study of Schumann's Dichterleibe (Poet's Love).

This art-song cycle is set to poems by Heinrich Heine, whose deceptively romantic verse is tinged with sarcasm and layered with bitterness. As Mashkan and Stephen uncover the sorrow and the joy in the music, their discoveries are mirrored in their personal relationship.

Obviously, there's plenty of subtext here, and Marans presents it in appropriately poetic language that the actors must handle with care to keep it from sounding florid or trite. Both Reinhardt and Douglas are fairly straightforward yet manage to bring out enough of the richness and shading in both their dialogue and singing, giving the audience a lot more to chew on than just the bare bones of their somewhat predictable life stories.

Stephen is a piano prodigy who burns out at age 25 and comes to Vienna in hopes of rekindling his solo career. Instead, he's relegated to learning to be an accompanist and tricked into studying with Mashkan. The older man is suffering his own form of burnout, having lost the will to live some time ago.

Mashkan's despair is tied to what he's seen his city become since WWII--a place where people refuse to acknowledge their complicity with the Nazis and yet engage in anti-Semitism as a matter of course. Although it's unclear exactly when Mashkan packed it all in, the condition of his dusty, dark studio, beautifully rendered by set designer Michael Ganio and lighting designer Evan Parker, belies his state of suspended animation.

The play is set in 1986, and both characters are horrified at the prospect of former SS officer Kurt Waldheim being elected Austria's president. The setting informs their approach to the Dichterleibe as strongly as the text of Heine's poems or the nuances of Schumann's music. The insane nationalism of the Nazi party flies in the face of the romantic ideals of Vienna and the 19th-century lieder composed in that city.

With all the ground it covers, Old Wicked Songs is most successful in making accessible a lesser-known art form without dumbing it down for mass consumption. Audiences should leave the theater feeling as emotionally invested in the songs they've heard as they are in the characters who sang them.


Old Wicked Songs plays Tuesday-Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 4:30 and 8:30pm, Sunday at 2 and 7pm and Wednesday (April 1) at noon through April 5 at the San José Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose. Tickets are $16-$32. (408/291-2255)

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From the March 19-25, 1998 issue of Metro.

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