Chicago Theatre Review
“Piano Diaries” a Fascinating, but Unfocused, Musical Journey
Piano Diaries – Athenaeum Theatre
I’ll start with the obvious – Peter Saltzman, the writer and star of “Piano Diaries,” a one-man show currently staged at Athenaeum Theatre, is a brilliant musician, the type who’s virtuosity and daring would be intimidating, if it weren’t delivered so effortlessly.
Unfortunately, those musical gifts are hampered somewhat by a clumsy presentation, one that undercuts the purpose of Saltzman’s show and only creates distance between him and the audience.
A musical journey, of sorts, “Piano Diaries” is part lecture, part memoir, as Saltzman guides the audience through his career as a musician and his evolving thoughts on the very nature of music, from his early days as a disciple of jazz pianists McCoy Tyner and Randy Weston, to his idolatry of Beethoven, to his growing dissatisfaction of musical parameters and limitations.
As you can imagine, Saltzman covers an impressive breadth of material in the show’s scant 80 minutes, and though his musical virtuosity never fails to astound (his jazz treatments of popular songs is particularly dazzling), there are two principle issues with the show’s presentation that, again, limit the true thrust of his arguments and conclusions.
First, there is Saltzman himself, who is not a trained actor and who, though showing himself to be enormously nice and intelligent (indeed, I could see myself talking with him for hours about Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, and Stevie Wonder, all musicians who come up during the show), struggles to strike the right tone throughout. Of course, one does not have to be a trained actor to behave convincingly on the stage, but I kept thinking, as “Piano Diaries” continued on, that a more direct, casual, conversational tone would have benefitted Saltzman more than the multimedia approach that he and director Edwin Wald pursued, one that is professorial and goofy in equal parts.
And that’s the second issue with “Piano Diaries,” the inconsistent (and sometimes bizarre) multimedia touches that just end up getting in Saltzman’s way. In addition to Saltzman’s own acting, pre-taped projections of his person will appear behind him on a wrinkled sheet, reciting the same lines he utters to the audience; projections of famous composers and musicians will appear, but with Saltzman’s lips (appearing via cut-outs in the images) offering crude imitations; and in perhaps the most heavy-handed moment of all, Saltzman sits on a psychoanalyst’s couch and ruminates about his musical crises, while a disembodied Freud/Einstein amalgamation plays through the speakers. It’s all a bit silly and ill-planned, and it just detracts from what should be the play’s central focus – Saltzman’s stories and his musical virtuosity.
But when Saltzman plays (and sings – he’s an excellent jazz singer, as well), all those criticisms disappear; here’s hoping he and Wald find a way to make that the one and true focus.
Reviewed by Peter Thomas Ricci
Presented May 28 – July 6 by Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N Southport Ave, Chicago, IL 60657
Tickets are available by calling (773) 935-6875 or by visiting athenaeumtheatre.org/.
Additional information about this and other spectacular area productions is available at the one, the only, the indefatigable www.theatreinchicago.com.