BWW REVIEWS: PIANO DIARIES in the Athenaeum Theatre's Studio One: Striving for Something Just Out of Reach
Chicago native, pianist, composer, singer, teacher and thinker Peter Saltzman, now a playwright, producer and actor as well, is putting himself quite on display in the new theater piece, "Piano Diaries," which opened in Studio One at the venerable Athenauem Theatre last weekend for a run through July 6, 2014. A lifelong student of music in various forms, adjunct faculty member in music technology at Columbia College Chicago and teenage jazz piano prodigy, with numerous recordings, club appearances, college enrollments and online forums in his extensive bio, the now middle-aged Saltzman has taken to the theater to do a bit of memoir telling, piano playing (mostly his own riffs on tunes originated by others), philosophizing and time-travel personality engagement. It's something, to be sure. But it's not what its creator wants it to be, at least not fully. It's actually kind of frustrating--neither concert nor cabaret, neither play nor monologue, neither humble brag nor a full-on advertisement, it's a work that needs a little more work. Or something.
In 85 minutes of continuous playing time, the affable though somewhat awkward Saltzman engages the audience in a scripted and well-rehearsed play (directed by Edwin Wald) on a somewhat unattractive and virtually empty stage--there's a baby grand piano, a stool, and a backdrop/screen of some kind. A podium and a lounge chair make brief appearances. (He could have used a small table or two, as he kept drinking out of plastic water bottles kept on the floor, leaning over and making my back hurt.) In words and in occasional multi-media presentations (crude, but mostly ok), Saltzman talks with Johann Sebastian Bach, Antonia Carlos Jobim and the like about the universe, music, creativity, etc., every few minutes reverting to the piano bench to play for us. The show's first segment (some sort of faux-grandiose speechifying) should be dropped, as it adds nothing and sets the wrong tone. For there is some real and lively discussion to be had here, regarding how people create, why and what they think up, how it's taught, etc. Mostly, the pace is good, and the subject matter well-considered.
And yet, Saltzman's career preoccupation to integrate jazz piano, classical keyboard compositions and pop songs into some sort of "new" amalgamation (combining equal parts freedom, structure and accessibility) is a little bit too far beyond the technical expertise of the average lay person. Musicians, especially jazz cats, will know exactly what he's saying. Only, they may not think it's that revolutionary. Kind of like when somebody runs so fast they're not winded, or they travel around the world and you never knew they left.
"Piano Diaries" is at its best when Saltzman just sits and plays (loudly, I might add, as it's a small room). He's a great player. But he rarely plays full works. It's like half pieces, until you get what he's getting at, and then it fades out. And he's really a great jazz pianist, much more so during his improvisations than on the classical or pop tunes that occasionally show up. McCoy Tyner's "Search for Peace," and Randy Weston's "Little Niles" set the tone for the evening. We also hear some Thelonius Monk, Duke Ellington, James P. Johnson, plus a little Bach and Jobim. Songs sung by Stevie Wonder and Sting, and allusions to Carole King and Beethoven, add some spice.
There is a dramatic structure to this piece, by the way, and the climax is reached when Saltzman sings new words to a tune he wrote many years ago. It's now a song called, "Song to My Younger Self," and it's appearance is a satisfying cliffhanger to the synthesizing topic of lifelong pursuit/musical style struggle that Saltzman has been considering in the course of the show. And the end, the denouement as it were, which is a new composition called "End Peace," does, I think, achieve what its composer and performer wants it to, musically and theatrically.
But, for a self-produced one-man show (standard in the cabaret and club world) to avoid the "vanity" or "self-promotion" labels anathema to the theater world, "Piano Diaries" needs a next incarnation. Don't assume the audience knows what you are talking about. Take more time, and really show us the nuts and bolts of these compositions, I think. Otherwise, we're just watching someone write music. Show us how you did it, don't just let us watch you figure it out. Put some sheet music on that screen, or at least a camera close-up on your hands. Play tunes more than once, trying out different chords or rhythms. Greater specificity, I think, leads to greater universality. That's what theater does. It's theater. My advice: Go long. Go deep. Go all out.
Written and performed by Peter Saltzman
Directed by Edwin Wald
Opening Night - Friday, May 30 at 8:00 PM
Regular Run - Friday, May 30 - July 6, 2014
Ticket prices - Adults - $27.00, Seniors 65+ and students - $17.00, Children under age 10 $12.00
Thursdays - Saturdays at 8:00 PM, Sundays at 2:00 PM
Additional performance Wednesday, July 2 at 8:00 PM
No performance Friday, July 4
Tickets can be ordered through the Athenaeum Theatre Box office, 2936 N. Southport Ave., Chicago, IL 60657, online at www.athenaeumtheatre.org, or by phone at 773-935-6875.