It begins as something far too placid.

Lights come up on the ancient, Austrian studio, all dark wood with a fringe-covered grand piano, where professor Josef Mashkan (Dan Hiatt) plays and sings, killing time as much as anything else.

Unknown to the professor, his new student, the talented but troubled Stephen Hoffman (Patrick Russell), enters the room quietly and eventually startles him. Hoffman is there for a few months worth of singing lessons, at the insistence of Mashkan, who has agreed to give him piano instruction if he will do voice work as a warm-up.

CENTER REPERTORY COMPANYA young American piano prodigy (Patrick Russell, right) hopes to regain his touch while working with a voice teacher (Dan Hiatt) in
CENTER REPERTORY COMPANY A young American piano prodigy (Patrick Russell, right) hopes to regain his touch while working with a voice teacher (Dan Hiatt) in "Old Wicked Songs." ( crc )

Hoffman isn't happy with the deal. Neither, it seems, is the gruff professor. And immediately, you figure this for another warmhearted tale of the egotistic student and the grumpy professor fighting like banjos and violas until both see the light and ride off into the sunset, having learned a great lesson about being much better human beings.

That's how it starts, anyway, although the game is played in the rarefied air of classical music when Mashkan assigns Hoffman Robert Schumann's "Dichterliebe" to help the young man get his musical mojo back. Schumann had set the music to a much older poem by Heinrich Heine, adding his own magic to make the tale one of an older man with a more expansive view on love and life.


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Within this score is where the emotional bombshells begin to explode, turning a play you maybe had not much hope for into an engaging, surprising and totally satisfying two-character play with music. It ends up being a considerably demanding show that stretches so far the music becomes almost, but not entirely, incidental.

Still, the Schumann composition is the vehicle upon which the piece rides, and one that forges the relationship between the professor and the young musician. And it gives Hoffman a reason to come to Vienna and explore that part of Europe.

But "Old Wicked Songs" also allows for a wide-ranging look at politics, history, human understanding and the role of creativity and artistry in all of these things. It's a remarkable piece of theater with a story so deep and delicious, it would be a near crime to give away anything but the sketchiest of details. Suffice it to say, it is so much more than the story of grumpy old man and a fierce youthful ego reaching an accord.

Hiatt, a longtime favorite among Bay Area theater fans, and Russell perform remarkably. They inhabit their characters so thoroughly that each characterization they employ seems unique and believable.

Director Jessica Heidt has done an excellent job focusing a show that wades through Schumann's music as well as a good deal of turbulent personal and world history. She also manages to keep the show moving at a pitched pace that never seems hurried.

The show is played on an impressive and realistic set by Nina Ball, who has created the perfect lair for an old professor, right down to the things on the bookshelves and tables.

Contact Pat Craig at pjcraig495@yahoo.com.

'OLD WICKED SONGS'

By Jon Marans, presented by Center Repertory Company

Through: March 2
Where: Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek
Running time: 2 hours
Tickets: $38-$51; 925-943-7469, www.centerrep.org.