On Sundays Gothamist runs opinion pieces relevant to life in New York and reviews of recent books and performances. The judgments expressed below are entirely those of the author.
As The Music Teacher begins, magnified footage of fresh-faced teenaged students in a choir and at play in an idyllic high school setting floats gauzily over curtains onstage. It effectively sets the tone of nostalgia and longing that characterizes the rest of this opera-play by Wallace and Allen Shawn. If you were in a school choir yourself, or were a student in the 80’s (the students’ style sensibilities clearly evoke those misguided years), you’ll likely feel that nostalgia personally, though depending on your experience in school it may be more bitter than sweet. Certainly you can see the wistfulness – half pained, half at peace – on the face of Mark Blum, who plays Smith, the main character, as he sits with his Wall Street Journal reflecting on the scenes that stream by (which are presumably supposed to be in his head). The story behind these memories and why Smith recalls them in this mixed way is what you’re in for with The Music Teacher. It’s funny and endearing, if somewhat lopsided in structure, for most of its duration, so it’s that much more striking when the last bit takes a distinctive turn to the disturbing, leaving you bewildered and unsure of what to do with your earlier impressions, an off-kilter sensation that may or may not be to your taste, but which certainly won’t allow you to forget the show soon.
The Shawn brothers collaborated 23 years ago to create this work about a small-town music teacher and what happens when he and a female student write an opera together; only now is it being produced, courtesy of The New Group (Tom Cairns directs). In the first segment, the older Smith played by Blum remembers the exhilaration he felt at being a favorite teacher in a school where the students lived and breathed music, and flashes back to scenes from those heady times when girls and boys alike vied for his attention. The one who wins out best is Jane (played in her young incarnation by Kathryn Skemp and Sarah Wolfson; that role and two others have regularly alternating casts – I saw Wolfson). Smith describes Jane as having “a touch of the fanatic about her”; the opera was her idea, and she wrote the libretto, a pseudo-Greek tragedy. But as we hear from Jane’s grown-up self (Kellie Overbey), Smith took over the music-writing and turned into an absolute maniac in the process. He has said earlier that he sees himself as a “collector” of images, of particular moments of beauty, an occupation that implies some detachment, and the act of composing the opera, which he allows himself to get involved in so deeply, seems to unscrew something within him. One senses from the start, both from the way Smith behaves and from what the students say about him, that he’s a bit of an odd bird and struggling with some demons, but it’s just an impression until the opera pushes him over the edge into full-blown neurosis and releases those demons.
The production of the opera is shown apparently in full, or at least it goes on long enough to seem that way if it’s not. This was my main complaint with the show; it doesn’t seem necessary to see so much of what Jane and Smith wrote in order to understand the pent-up tension and desires that underlie it, especially since the opera is rather excruciatingly lame and adolescent, at least Jane’s libretto, which has such choice, brief lines as “Here’s your spoon.” The rest of The Music Teacher is done with interwoven flashbacks and switches between times and points of view, so getting this huge chunk of almost unbroken opera in the middle weighs it down a bit. It’s also hard to connect with Smith’s character; he’s supposed to be a bit distant and evasive especially around the students, but the audience needs a way to understand him and preferably to sympathize with him, in order to be able to judge him better later, and we don’t really get it. We do so more with Jane, perhaps because of Overbey’s strong performance, which lays bare Jane’s dreams and fears and vulnerabilities, even though she is now an apparently well-adjusted adult and is just harking back to her feelings as a teenager. But when Smith comes unglued, we’re not prepared to know quite how we should feel about this, how to reevaluate him and incorporate this new impression into the old one, which was relatively benign.
The Music Teacher seems ultimately to be about the danger of trying to shut yourself off from the world, both by jealously guarding your experience of it from others and by repressing your feelings about it out of sight even from yourself, so it may not even have been possible for Smith to be written in any other way than he was. And anyway, the show is enjoyable on many other counts, especially the music (a trio of musicians and conductor Timothy Long perform in a grove of fake trees on the side of the stage, and a large portion of the cast is primarily from the opera world). And despite the lack of a more in-depth, nuanced view of Smith, the shifting elements of the story (aside from the overdone opera component) mean that the nostalgia of the opening scene has given way to a deeper examination of the nature of those warm, fuzzy memories, and that unsettling but crucial process is portrayed with care and ingenuity.
The Music Teacher is at the Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane, through April 9. Shows are Mon.-Sat. 8pm, Sat. also 2pm. Tickets via Ticketmaster.