By Peter Saltzman
Directed By Edwin Wald
Athenaeum Theatre in Chicago
Artist Claims to Have “Figured It Out”
Piano Diaries documents the artistic and musical progression of singer-songwriter, and now playwright, Peter Saltzman. Playing himself, Saltzman describes how he evolved as a musician along side live renditions of his own music and inspirations. Beginning with jazz, he covers his heroes (Randy Weston, Thelonious Monk, and Duke Ellington), the classical greats (Bach and Beethoven), pop music (The Beatles, Sting, and Stevie Wonder), and finishes it off with an original piece influenced by the three styles. With a grand promise of new music and inspired art, the production set itself up to fail, and unfortunately did not deliver on that premise. Between the ambitious intent, lackluster musical performance, and sub-par acting, the production had little saving grave.
Saltzman presents us with the artist’s dilemma; a great work of art is at his fingertips, but he doesn’t know how to achieve it. It’s a problem all artists, and most people, can relate to, however, it completely missed the one thing needed to make us pay attention – emotion. The show was littered with overly intellectual musings and discourse on physics, existentialism, and music theory, while attempting to relate to his life and art. Although the concepts he presents are interesting and worthy of exploration, his monologues were nothing more than pretentious. I’m sure he honestly wanted to educate the audience, but he never established himself as an authority. Instead he chose to open the show with a caricature of a meta-physics professor. Furthermore he failed to relate these ideas back to his emotional journey, which was no more than a factual account of his artistic timeline. If he truly wanted to share these dense concepts, he needed to show them rather than tell them.
For all of Saltzman’s angst and struggling, he never seemed to break away from a jazz style. His story was nothing more than that, an artist filled with angst, fed up with the past and present state of music who wishes to move into the future. His “new” amalgamation of musical styles is merely flashy jazz improvisations based upon the major musical movements of the western world. As a young man Saltzman desired to be a great artist, and he searched for that profundity and catharsis. Unfortunately, instead of finding artistic enlightenment and musical transcendence, he has merely learned to speak about his art in an esoteric way. His compositions and improvisations lacked originality and grace, which seemed to confuse more notes with more skill. He strived to produce music that combined and eclipsed the music of the past, but created nothing more than variations on a theme. What I find most puzzling is that he never mentioned or played anything by George Gershwin. Gershwin was an early 20th century composer who managed to combine jazz, classical, and popular music into a grand style of music, which remains an icon of its time.
Everything this production has to offer can be derived by reading Saltzman’s bio and by listening to his recordings. On top of his meek performance, the production was peppered with video projections, which only seemed to function as a means for cheap laughs and a multi-media edge. The production wouldn’t have been nearly as disappointing if it hadn’t been based on an aggressive promise to present new music and profound ideas. If a guarantee of that scale is made, you have to deliver or show some modesty. It’s much more palatable to exclaim that you have a different perspective than it is to proclaim you have created a transformative work of art. I applaud and admire Saltzman for striving to create new work, but Piano Diaries lacked the emotion and humility that would have made the production appreciable.
Date Reviewed: May 29th, 2014
For more info checkout the Piano Diaries page at theatreinchicago.com
At Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave., Chicago, IL, call 773-935-6875, tickets $27, Thursdays-Saturday 8pm, Sundays at 2pm, running time is 85 minutes with no intermission, through July 6th, 2014