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The Music Teacher
by Rob Kendt

©2006 Carol Rosegg
Mark Blum in The Music Teacher
Some voices just don't harmonize well, even when they're in the family. In the ludicrous new "play/opera" The Music Teacher, the odd, unsettling voice of playwright Wallace Shawn makes a discordant match with his brother Allen Shawn's prickly chamber music. This lavish New Group production, directed by Tom Cairns and lovingly acted and sung by a capable cast, must be this season's leading contender for the "What Were They Thinking?" prize.

Actually, the title character, Smith (Mark Blum), comes out and tells us exactly what he's thinking, at least at first. A ruefully insignificant middle-aged professor, he's forever returning to fond memories of his years teaching music at a small-town boarding school. Music trickles both from a stageside band and from choral voices just offstage, and video projections by Greg Emetaz help conjure a creative idyll in Smith's life when, he says, he spent his evenings feeling "nostalgia for the day I'd just lived through."

Any warm glow generated by this wistful opening starts to cool as soon as we flash back to those purportedly happy school days, in which a gaggle of precocious teens--mostly girls, it's hard not to notice--taunt a kvetchy, irritated Smith. "Go to hell," he tells them, not entirely good-naturedly. A single man hanging around a bunch of nubile coeds, he soon sublimates whatever frustrations he might be feeling--where else?--into the creation of an opera with his best student, Jane (Sarah Wolfson, who alternates in the role with Kathryn Skemp).

By the time we're watching their student opera in its entirety, and an adult Jane (Kellie Overbey) has emerged to provide her side of the backstory, we've lost whatever thread we were holding onto. It feels like we've entered the theatrical workshop of a well-funded madman, where the strange, often intricately designed parts don't hang together. This opera, for starters: Just where did this turgid toga melodrama, starring Jane and a young Smith (Jeffrey Picón, alternating with Wayne Hobbs), come from? Are we supposed to see it as a parody of youthful pretension, or take it as seriously as the singers do? In either case, what does it have do with the weirdly clinical binge of sex and despair that follows?

Story continues below

Blum and Overbey do their best with a series rambling, reiterative monologues, which increasingly seem
©2006 Carol Rosegg
Jason Forbach & Wayne Hobbs in The Music Teacher
to belong in another play--one which, with the sort of extensive honing and polishing Wallace Shawn typically applies to his best work, might be called How I Learned To Sing. The young singers bring as much vocal conviction as is possible to their roles; Wolfson in particular has some glistening moments and lovely high notes as the opera's coquettish heroine, and Jason Forbach, as her cuckolded husband, has a springy eagerness that gives this operatic diversion seemingly its only intentional laughs (he alternates with Ross Benoliel).

Allen Shawn's icy, impassive score, played with placid competence by a five-piece band under music director Timothy Long, gives the singers many hurdles to jump but precious little to hang onto. A later song for a redheaded chanteuse (Rebecca Robbins), ostensibly invoking cabaret stylings, is outstandingly dreadful.

This misbegotten work was reportedly gathering dust in a drawer since it was written, in 1983, and was exhumed only at the behest of New Group artistic director Scott Elliott. The lesson of this Music Teacher is one the sad-sack Smith might agree with: Some mementoes are best left in the drawer.

The Music Teacher
Words by Wallace Shawn
Music by Allen Shawn
Directed by Tom Cairns
Minetta Lane Theatre

Print This Story / Send the Story to a Friend / 3/6/2006 5:08:00 PM


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