Thursday, July 19, 2012

"Upright Grand" ☼ ☼ ☼

When we saw Laura Schellhardt's "Upright Grand" at last summer's Theatreworks New Works Festival, we were staggered with how good a playwright Schellhardt is -- this being her third show in less than two years that we had seen. All are different, heartfelt and filled with raw emotion.

 Of course, there is no better way to insure you will be disappointed than to see the "improved" show you loved when it was new. All the good parts are still here -- the touching relationship between father and the daughter, the innovative (and tightened-up) interplay between the real on stage accompanist (Brett Ryback) and the actors pretending to play the piano, and the constant appearance of the show's true villain -- the inevitable passage of time. Kiddo (Renata Friedman) catches and surpasses Pops (Dan Hiatt), as we know she must, and as she does so every parent in the audience feels an all-too-familiar punch in the gut.

So what's the problem? It may be chemistry. Hiatt and Friedman are both excellent actors but they are abstract with each other, never touching, never really connecting until it is too late. Friedman doesn't seem young, and Hiatt doesn't seem old. In a talk-back after the Wednesday performance, the actors and dramaturg Vicki Rozell claimed the show has changed very little since 2011, but it does not feel that way.

What has improved is pacing and staging; what has not improved is a true connection. Perhaps this is the way Laura Schellhardt and director Meredith McDonough see their two leads, but although we enjoyed this year's production, last year the show tore our guts out.  Then, there were men crying -- yes, men crying in the theater -- all through the house. This year -- well, not so much.

We love the elevation of Brett Ryback's several roles. He acts as well as plays all the piano pieces. He is excellent as a Russian would-be impressario and blind piano tuner, and he obviously knows his Rachmaninoff, Chopin and Henry Mancini.  But perhaps there is a price to pay by adding a third wheel. We knew this show as a duet, a back and forth between Kiddo and Pops. Now it's a trio.

All that aside, "Upright Grand" hits you where you live. This is the World Premiere and they are still working things out -- the Rachmaninoff, for example, was added when the show was already in previews. So give it time. If you are seeing it for the first time you will be entranced. There is never an excuse to miss any Laura Schellhardt show.

RATINGS: ☼  ☼  ☼
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Upright Grand" Three Stars.  Staging, acting and music earn one star each. We especially liked Pops at the bar. Pops, you shouldn't have quit. Really.

"Upright Grand"
Lucie Stern Theater
1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
Through August 10, 2012

Photo Credit: M. Kitaoka and T. Martin

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