Monday, February 13, 2017

Dan Castellaneta’s ‘For Piano and Harpo’ is a brilliant work of genius at the Falcon Theatre

 A passionate, dark yet humorous exploration of the life and mind of Oscar Levant 

By Patti Pietschmann

All photos by Sasha A Venola
Many of you may be too young to recall Oscar Levant whose career dates back to our parents or even grandparents’ time but you will wish you knew the man when you meet him through the eyes of  Dan Castellaneta  who wrote and stars in the brilliant ‘For Piano and Harpo’ now playing at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank--where it made its world premier earlier this month.

According to Wikipedia, Oscar Levant was an American pianist, composer, author, comedian, and actor. He was as famous for his mordant character and witticisms, on the radio and in movies and television, as for his music. He was born December 27, 1906 and died in  1972.  Castellaneta brings Levant  back to life highlighting his  wit, genius and talent. In one scene Levant refers to himself as ‘the male Eve Arden. Fame and brilliance have downside and Levant was also a chain-smoking  pill popper who was beset by demons. While that might sound bleak, the play does has a few lighter moments, some quite  funny, especially during scenes with Harpo Marx who is played definitively by  JD Cullum.

The  face-paced, scene-changing story is about the relationship between down and out Levant who is grappling to save a failing marriage and his own sanity, and Harpo Marx who is living large in a Hollywood mansion where Levant one day just moves in.  During the course  of his uninvited house guesting, Levant winds up in the Psych Ward of Mt. Sanai Hospital where he interacts with other patients. Levant is also haunted by the virtuosity of George Gershwin and the audience is treated some of the musician/composers melodies which is pantomimed by Castellanata but performed by two musicians behind a curtain.

Other characters in the cast include Jack Paar (famous late night TV host and also brilliant wit played by Jonathan Stark) who opens the play with an entertaining monologue introducing Oscar Levant. Like each  cast member Stark gives a brilliant performance. A then there’s Levant’s Mom fabulously acted by Gail Matthius, his wife equally spectacularly performed by Deb Lacusta and his father dazzlingly done by Phil Proctor.

‘For Piano and Harpo’ is a thought provoking play that will keep you  rehashing  its magic moments and make you feel that you are actually in a flash back to an earlier time.  Levant’s drug addiction is well presented and disturbingly real.  You really need to go see it for yourself. And you can from now through March 5 at the Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Avenue in Burbank. Tickets cost from $30 to $45 and can be purchased at or by calling 818-955-8101. Please turn off your mobile devices because as they told us when the curtain went up last night, “they didn’t exist in 1962.’

Patti Pietschmann photo

By the way since the show starts at 8 p.m. during the week (4 p.m. on Sunday) you might want to plan to have dinner before and there are many good spots—from burger joins to bistros and pizza parlor and steak houses) along Riverside from which to choose. Just go to www.tripadvisor or  do a Google search  for restaurants near the Falcon Theatre.