‘For Piano and Harpo’ reveals both wit and demons of composer Oscar Levant

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At Falcon Theatre through March 5

For Piano and Harpo showcases the razor-sharp wit of composer-pianist Oscar Levant, framed by the mostly self-inflicted demons he used to deal with his genius. It is a tour de force for Dan Castellaneta who plays Levant, in addition to also being the playwright of the provocative piece for the Laugh Then Think Production. Castellaneta uses slices of Levant’s own snappy repartee throughout and delivers it like the true original.

The show starts with Levant as a guest on the Jack Parr Show in 1962 where his larger than life persona is evident and so is his troubled soul. The setting swiftly shifts to Oscar in the “nuthouse,” committed there by his wife who is trying to save him from his self-destructive nature.

Playing the challenging role as June, his long-suffering wife, Deb Lacusta is formidable, matching wits with the master of droll. A master of comic timing is JD Cullum playing Harpo Marx, perhaps Levant’s only friend. There is comfort in Oscar’s relationship with Harpo, and their scenes together playing piano and harp are a highlight thanks to the real players: music supervisor David O on piano and Jillian Risigari-Gai on harp.

The timeline snaps back and forth, and the actors are constantly playing different roles, with Gail Matthius, Phil Proctor and Jonathan Stark skillfully going from the denizens of the psych ward to the key players in Oscar’s world. Levant’s life unfolds in a nonlinear way that exposes his troubled childhood, assorted addictions, many fears and the way George Gershwin haunts him. It all would turn into a jumbled mess without the dexterity of director Stefan Novinski.

Completing an outstanding behind-the-scenes team are: scenic designer Stephen Gifford; lighting designer Jean-Yves Tessier; costume designer Kate Bergh; sound designer Drew Dalzell; props master Mallory Birkrem; stage manager Leia Crawford and production supervisor Lee Costello.

“For Piano and Harpo” is playing through March 5th at the Falcon Theatre located at 4252 Riverside Dr. in Toluca Lake. Call (818) 955-8101 for tickets or visit FalconTheatre.com.

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