UPRIGHT GRAND at TheatreWorks stands tall

Dan Hiatt and Renata Friedman star as "Pops" and "Kiddo" in world premiere UPRIGHT GRAND at TheatreWorks. Photo credit: Mark Kitaoka

Upright Grand: Drama, by Laura Schellhardt and directed by Meredith McDonough. TheatreWorks, Lucie Stern Theatre,1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. 85 minutes.650-463-1960 or www.theatreworks.org. . Through August 10, 2012.

UPRIGHT GRAND stands tall at TheatreWorks

To start their 43rd season TheatreWorks elected to mount a world premiere of Laura Schellhardt’s Upright Grand that was work shopped in last years New Works Festival. It is their 61st world premiere and signals the start of the 2012 festival running August 5 – 19. If you have not booked for Upright Grand you will miss a fine production that is a trademark of the quality theatre offered by TheatreWorks. An example of that quality was displayed when Schellhardt’s Auctioning the Ainsleys, also directed by Meredith McDonough, had its world premiere on the Lucie Stern stage.

My personal experience with Schellhardt’s work includes a 2007 summer stint at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center - Theatre, Performing Arts a few years ago where her play The K of D was presented in its formative stages and received its west coast premiere at the Magic Theatre in 2008. She knows her craft and currently heads the playwriting program at Northwestern University and is the author of “Screen Writing for Dummies.”

Upright Grand is a play with music where the piano music is integral to the drama. The characters are simply listed as Pops (Dan Hiatt), Kiddo (Renata Friedman) and The Accompanist (Brett Ryback) who plays multiple roles as well as playing an upright grand situated on a revolving platform while Pops and Kiddo mime the action on skeletal pianos. It is a very effective devise.

Pops is a talented pianist and a so-so songwriter who has found his niche playing in a piano bar. He invests his nightly stints with personal monologs inserting popular songs such as “Smile”, "Moon River". “Some One to Watch Over Me”, “Look For the Silver Lining” to “Somebody Loves Me.” Although he is a loving father his relationship with daughter Kiddo is distant rather than intimate. She is rebellious and precocious before being discovered as a gifted pianist at the age of 12. After being expelled from Catholic school for writing ‘life is crap’ on the school wall she is enrolled in a more artistic venue before ending up in Juilliard. Pops teaches her all he knows about the piano and how to approach life and stands by with envy while always encouraging her talent.

The play covers 24 years and Friedman has the enormous job of aging from a 6 year old to the accomplished world traveler of 30. Her early stints on stage as a 6 and 12 year old are tentative but her growth to ages 16, 24 and 30 are a marvel. Hiatt is absolutely superb as he imbues Pop with verisimilitude ranging from love, dedication, pride and finally jealousy.

Brett Ryback as the accompanist, playing mostly with his back to the audience under the musical direction of William Liberatore almost steals the show with the variety of his piano playing. His turn on stage as Kiddo’s Russian instructor at Juilliard is a gem and you will not recognize him in the denouement scene.

As always with TheatreWorks the production values add depth to play. McDonough’s sensitive direction, Kris Stone’s elegant stage design with an upstage reflecting mirror, Cliff Caruthers unobtrusive sound design and Paul Toben’s lighting give full support to the great acting of Hiatt, Friedman and Ryback. Running time 85 minutes without intermission.

Kedar K. Adour, MD

Courtesy of www.theatreworldinternetmagazine.com