BWW Reviews: THREE PIANOS - A Music Event on Wheels

Three Pianos

Written, Arranged, and Performed by Rick Burkhardt, Alec Duffy, Dave Malloy; Director, Rachel Chavkin; Scenic Design, Andreea Mincic; Costume Design, Jessica Pabst; Lighting Design, Austin R. Smith; Sound Design, Matt Hubbs; Video Design, Dave Malloy; Production Manager, Dave Polato; Stage Manager, Jessie Vacchiano

Performances through January 8 at the Loeb Drama Center, American Repertory Theater, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA; Box Office 617-547-8300 or

Three Pianos at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge is a loving tribute to Franz Schubert (1797-1828) and his romantic song cycle Winterreise (Winter’s Journey) (Opus 89, D 911) with text by German poet Wilhelm Müller (1794 -1827). Written, arranged, and performed by Rick Burkhardt, Alec Duffy, and Dave Malloy, the program is made up of many diverse parts woven together to make for an unusual evening in the theater. It combines six-handed piano concert, storytelling (the wanderer’s journey through the snow), philosophical arguments about music, reenactment of a Schubertiade party, and mass consumption of alcohol.

In order to have some sense of what is going on at the Loeb Drama Center, it helps to know that a song cycle is a group of songs designed to be performed in a sequence and as a whole. In the case of Winterreise, there are twenty-four songs that tell the tale of the aforementioned wanderer. During Schubert’s lifetime, there were not many public concerts of his works, so his friends – mostly poets - would throw parties or salons in private homes as a way for his music to be heard. He would set their poems to music, everyone would dance and drink, and it was all very social. Burkhardt, Duffy, and Malloy recreate the atmosphere of a so-called Schubertiade to initiate the audience into the life and times of the composer. In the spirit of authenticity, the three actors serve cups of wine and sparkling cider to the audience, while they imbibe other spirits throughout the performance.

The OBIE-winning Three Pianos is inventive in its zeal to educate while it entertains, but some of the lengthier philosophical arguments and historical recitations are pedantic. The variety of piano-playing styles and mobility of the instruments make the musical segments interesting, and all three of the men are accomplished on the keys. They also sing, both in English and German, with mixed results. While some of their harmonies are quite beautiful, it is jarring to occasionally hear this classical music sung in a popular manner.

The show goes off the rails when the three men intersperse their personal stories, apparently with the intention of causing confusion. Perhaps it is for comic effect, but it misses the mark, especially when a prolonged interrogatory focuses on Malloy’s depression. Without an official intermission (although a quick bathroom break is built in at the mid-point), the show feels long at nearly two hours. The musical interludes are the best part, but their impact is diminished by all of this navel-gazing.

Director Rachel Chavkin has been involved with the show since February, 2010, and helped to edit it from a length of three and a half hours to its present version, as well as to refine the story threads. She has imbued the Loeb stage with a visual beauty to match the aural magnificence of Schubert’s opus. Scenic designer Andreea Mincic’s wintry forest, miniature cathedral, and snow-covered gravestones evoke the wanderer’s journey. Austin R. Smith makes use of many interesting lighting scenarios to effect the mood of each song and suspends vertical fluorescent lights that give the appearance of long icicles. Malloy handles the video design on an overhead display which features titles and lyrics in the cycle. The guys wear mostly everyday clothes, but Jessica Pabst outfits them in period costumes for part of the history lesson. Matt Hubbs does a good job with the sound design.

Burkhardt, Duffy, and Malloy are congenial hosts of this soirée and have a vast amount of knowledge about Schubert’s life and music, but it feels like they have bitten off more than is reasonable to chew. It is a clever conceit to use the format of a Schubertiade as the means of getting the composer’s music heard by the modern audience, but the cast of characters who are brought in only by mention as party guests makes it hard to stay focused on the music. It seems they spend more time moving the pianos around than they do playing them. I’d recommend a shift in that balance.  

Photo credit: Ryan Jensen (Dave Malloy, Alec Duffy, Rick Burkhardt)

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From This Author Nancy Grossman