Sentimental Medley

A funny thing happened at TheatreWorks’ opening night of Upright Grand at Palo Alto’s Lucie Stern Theatre. Before the show started, my dad turned to me and asked if a certain piece of preshow music was Hoagy Carmichael or not. I didn’t know, I said, because while I’m into old-time jazz I’m not much for schmaltzy stuff. It’s not schmaltzy, he objected—it’s sentimental. Then the play started. In the second scene, 12-year-old daughter Kiddo rolls her eyes at the song her dad, Pops, is playing, “Smile” by Charlie Chaplin, and she mocks how schmaltzy it is. “It’s not schmaltzy, Kiddo, it’s sentimental. There’s a difference.”

Dan Hiatt and Renata Friedman in Upright Grand. Photo by Mark Kitaoka.

That said, the father-daughter relationship in Upright Grand isn’t one you’d want to emulate. They’re a funny, charming pair, and there’s a lot of love between them, but they don’t know each other particularly well at all, at least at first. He’s a piano player in a bar—the type that’s more breezy storyteller than background musician—and when he’s at home he’s holed up trying to compose something.

At first it’s not even clear that they live in the same house. They talk about Kiddo’s unseen mother as if she and Pops are divorced or separated, and at first the relationship between father and daughter is very much as if she lives with her mother and he never sees her. Pops has no idea his wife is in therapy or that Kiddo’s been taking piano lessons for years. But occasional references make it clear eventually that they do in fact all live together—it’s just that Pops lives very much apart, in his own little world, and he’s ceded all the parenting to his wife, who he figures is better cut out for it. There’s a very mild running gag about him always underestimating how old Kiddo is, and whenever she corrects him he gasps, “What does that make me? Don’t answer that.”

The play’s by Laura Schellhardt, author of the solo show The K of D that played Magic Theatre a few years ago, and of Auctioning the Ainsleys, which TheatreWorks premiered in 2010. Upright Grand was featured in TheatreWorks’ New Works Festival last year, and now outgoing director of new works Meredith McDonough (who’s leaving soon to become associate artistic director at Actors Theatre of Louisville) gives the play a well-tuned staging that occasionally makes entertaining use of a revolving stage, such as to make the room seem like it’s spinning when someone’s drunk.

Kris Stone’s set centers on an upright piano, with stools and scattered papers everywhere. Opposite the piano is what appears to be just a keyboard with a couple of arms sticking up, but when Dan Hiatt sits down at it as Pops, it becomes clear that it’s the empty skeleton of a keyboard that we look through to see him.

The actual playing is done by pianist Brett Ryback, who sits at an upright piano playing what Pops and Kiddo pretend to play on the see-through piano and a similar skeleton of a grand piano that’s wheeled in later. Ryback deftly plays pop and classical numbers and impressively conjures the different styles of both characters playing at once. He also plays a number of amusing minor characters, all of whose names start with T: an amiable old busboy; a wise, blind piano tuner; a pompous Russian teacher at Juilliard; and an insightful young amateur piano player. Mind you, at least his characters have names, which is more than you can say for anyone in Kiddo’s family.

Hiatt is funny and sympathetic as Pops, who’s consumed with trying to make something of himself as a musician until he finds out Kiddo is a budding prodigy. After that, he devotes himself entirely to trying to make something of her instead, pinning all his ambitions vicariously on her.

Renata Friedman terrifically embodies Kiddo’s evolving but ever-awkward posture at 12, at 16 and in her 20s. Always wrapped up in that is her anxious, strained relationship with Pops, first because he pays too little attention to her and then because he pays too much. Kiddo gets a lot of the best lines in the play, and Friedman delivers them with sharp comic timing. Costumer Maggie Whitaker gives them easily changeable costumes that allow them to mark the passage of time simply by adding or subtracting an article—Pops in various pieces of a gray suit, and Kiddo in a short plaid dress under an oversize rainbow-print sweatshirt.

Schellhardt’s script is packed with gentle humor that the cast brings out beautifully. “It’s dizzying being in your 60s,” Pops says. “It’s like a tarantella played by musicians who have somewhere else to be.”

That said, there are also some terribly corny and heavy-handed lines along the way. “Maybe he wants more for you than a highball kind of life,” the wise piano tuner says when he tells Kiddo that Pops is quitting work at the bar to focus on her career, and that Pops gave the tuner the glass he always kept on the piano as a memento.  He waxes philosophical about how it’s rare that two things are as perfectly in tune as her dad and that bar—and, you know, he should know, because he’s a piano tuner.

Schellhardt pushes the piano metaphors hard, especially around Kiddo freaking out when Pops brings home her maternal grandparents’ grand piano for her to practice on, retiring the old upright that was the only thing his gruff German farmer father ever gave him. “We’re more upright than we’ll ever be grand,” she says.

One choice that seems bizarre is to have the play set in the present day. The way all the characters talk, act and dress is gently old-fashioned, and all the musical references are from the 1940s or older. There are only a couple of references to email or to pictures on a cell phone, and when they come up they feel jarringly, glaringly out of place. The music Pops plays and tries in vain to compose (there are some creative medleys and musical sound effects in the show, but no original compositions) would be old-fashioned even in the early 1960s, but at least then it would make more sense.

In a way it’s a kinder, gentler version of Mildred Pierce, touching on some of the same issues of sacrificing one’s one ambitions for the sake of one’s children’s. But it’s a generalized, almost universalized one made abstract by the unnamed characters who speak in musical metaphor. That these almost-characters come off as likeable and affecting as they do is a testament both to the cast and to the timeless appeal of the sentimental—as opposed to the schmaltzy.

Upright Grand
Through August 10
Lucie Stern Theatre
1305 Middlefield Rd.
Palo Alto, CA

Show #67 of 2012, attended July 14.

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