Old Wicked Songs

By John Maransoldwick logo

Directed by Timothy Gregory

At Provision Theater, Chicago
“Art consists of knowing the basic rules and realizing when it is time to deviate from them.”

“Life is not clear cut.”

“The combination of joy and sadness – this is the core of truly beautiful music. Just as it is the core of drama. Of life.”

“Sadness and joy. When a composer finds both, the result is Mozart. Beethoven. And how do they acquire this perfect combination? Why do some countries give us great composers while others not?. . . Because [they] have not prolonged national suffering.

“. . . each person has but one story in him. Tell it to everyone and its meaning is cheapened.”

—Jon Marans from Old Wicked Songs

Student-teacher drama emphasizes the redemptive power of music

Provision Theatre’s smart choice is Jon Marans’ 1996 drama, Old Wicked Songs is to be cherished. This is a well structured work combines two worthy characters in a struggle of cultures, generations and attitudes utilizing classical music as the motif for acting out personal demons. We hear Robert Schumann’s (1810-1856) song cycle for voice and piano—Dichterliebe plus and the poetry of Heinrich Heine. This  two-hander drama is set in 1986 in Vienna, Austria in a rehearsal studio of Professor Mashkan (fine set design by Carl Ulaszrk)

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Stephen Hoffman (David Hathway) is a 25 year old burned-out child prodigy who has lost his confidence in his piano abilities. He is an emotionally empty, brash yet technically brilliant musician who has cometo Vienna  combat an artistic block that threatens his music career. He is forced to study with an old curmudgeon voice teacher before he is allowed to work with a master piano professor. Josef Mashkan (Michael Joseph Mitchell) is a passionate, quirky master voice teacher who makes Stephan sing before he is allowed to play the piano. Mashkan believes that Stephen needs to feel the conflicting emotions of sadness and joy in order to find his musical self.

Playwright Jon Marans has structured this work using the song cycle of Schumann’s Dichterliebe as a powerful learning tool to unfold the emotion, tension, conflict and resolution in Stephan. Schumann’s music both binds the two men as it helps melt the stubbornness and miscommunication between the two musicians. We learn that Mashkan is also battling his own demons. This finely structured play unfolds smartly without the usual young versus old, Old World versus New World values falling into predictable outcomes. Indeed, as each reveal their Jewish identities and explain their initial lies, the play takes on heightened significance beyond mere professional performances problems.

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The conflict and ultimate conciliation between the two complex men is expertly played out with moving performances byDavid Hathway and Michael Joseph Mitchell. Each honestly reaches the truth in their characters and each plays off each other effectively. Both are accomplished musicians equally at ease with Schumann’s piano work. Hathway’s vocals carried enough emotional truth to convey Maran’s meanings. Mitchell’s temperament was  communicated through moments of humor and pathos. Hathway’s beautiful imitation of the piano styles of some of the masters like Horowitz  was enchanting. Both play Schumann’s song cycle with spirit and respect. We see Mashkan dominate Stephen early and eventually Stephen breaks through to be able to help Mashkan tame his demons.

Old Wicked Songs deals as much with ethnic and national identities as it does with personal demons in both characters. We see how conflict is resolved through the power of redemption through music. This finely crafted drama is emotionally heartfelt. Rich in music and excellent character development, Old Wicked Songs is a theatrical tour de force and a true work of art. Hathway and Mitchell capture the depth, respect and truthfulness of  the work. “The combination of joy and sadness – this is the core of truly beautiful music. Just as it is the core of drama. Of life:”  Professor Mashkan’s words prevail into a universal theme marvelously presented by two great performances.  Watch the quirky Professor as he helps Hoffman re-ignite his interest in music.  Old Wicked Songs is an emotional journey through joy and sadness, anger and redemption, out of which emerges healing, inspiration and music that will inspire our souls! Don’t miss this marvel, it is one of 2015’s best productions!

Highly Recommended

Tom Williams

Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast

Date Reviewed: May 9, 2015

For more info checkout the Old Wicked Songs page at

At Provision Theatre, 1001 W. Roosevelt Road, Chicago, IL, call 312-455-0065, tickets $28 – $32,   Fridays & Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 3 pm, running time is 2 hours, 10 minutes with intermission, through June 7, 2015