In The Great Work a superstar composer goes home to be reborn

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The pure joy of being in love and creating art

For the second year, 7th House Theater has premiered a new work for the holiday season. And for the second year, it's a winner that freely mixes love, passion, and heartbreak into a moving, musical ride.

Hans Gartner is a superstar composer and pianist near the end of his life. His mortality comes into focus after he collapses at a Carnegie Hall performance. The near-death experience pushes him to return to his birthplace of Vienna, which he hasn't visited in decades. He's accompanied by his less-than-enthusiastic daughter, Charlotte.

The Great Work splits its time between present-day Hans and the 20-year-old starving artist version of Hans, who is trying to turn his talents into a career in post-war Europe. His big break comes when he gets a tutoring job with the wealthy von Laudon family. While Hans is teaching the piano to the von Laudons' willful daughter Franny, he quickly falls for the older daughter, Elisabeth.

That spark turns into more than love. Elisabeth encourages Hans to compose music, which launches his journey to fame. But somewhere along this path, the latter-day Hans lost his way. The only way to recapture that spark is to return to the von Laudon's castle to perform.

It's best to think of the hourlong play as a short story instead of a full-blown musical. There are no subplots to stretch the action — or distract us from the main plotline.

This simplicity serves the story well, though slower pacing would help to deepen the experience. That's especially true when the younger Hans has to make a key decision: Should he stay in Vienna with Elisabeth, or go on tour as a young pianist? It's a moment that deserves to be held as long as possible, but instead passes in a flash.

While Grant Sorenson's script would benefit from some extra cooking, that's not true of David Darrow's songs. Musical- theater fans will recognize more than a little Stephen Sondheim in the score.

The lyrics offer a strong mix of bittersweet nostalgia and the pure joy of being in love and creating art. Actors David Carey and Andy Frye make a convincing pair, presenting Hans at opposite ends of his life. They have the same twinkle, and their clear, passionate singing grabs the listener from the first notes.

In fact, the vocals are tremendous from the entire eight-member cast. While the show is made up mostly of solos and duets, the occasional chorus fills the room with a sound that makes you positively giddy. That's especially true when the chorus sings Hans' long-lost work. Every note carries the potential of a Viennese spring. 

IF YOU GO:

The Great Work
Guthrie Theater
818 S. Second St., Minneapolis
Through Jan. 3; 612-377-2224



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