By Barry Reszel
A diary by its very definition—author and audience one and the same—should be the most authentic piece of writing possible.
It’s not surprising, then, when Chicago-based pianist and songwriter Peter Saltzman’s autobiographical, one-man Piano Diaries is at its best is when Saltzman is being Saltzman. And it’s at its most stellar when the ridiculously talented musician just shuts up and plays.
What is effective is Saltzman’s true diary, his story of a musician’s quest to understand every nuance of his art and craft. It begins with his love of jazz, fixation on masters McCoy Tyner and Randy Weston, movement to the blues, appreciation of the classics (particularly Beethoven and Bach) and desire to combine them all into his own history-making style.
What’s honest is his dabbling at scholarship (Hampshire College, Indiana University and Eastman School of Music) and excelling at performance. Jaws drop when Saltzman sits at the piano and plays.
He really should do it more. Because as a piece of theatre, Piano Diaries comes off as amateur. It tries too hard to jam his honest story into a philosophical science fiction paradigm. And conventions like the projection of classical composers with Clutch Cargo-esque talking mouths or a scene with Saltzman on a psychologist’s couch talking with a morphed Sigmund Freud/Albert Einstein combo just aren’t effective.
There’s a little bit of Harry Chapin’s “Mr. Tanner” in Saltzman’s Diaries. The self-produced piece is a midlife grasp at greater public significance. That’s made clearest when Saltzman tells the famous classical composers, “I’ve earned the right to assert my artistic voice here.”
Indeed he has. But Diaries falls short in this iteration because the diarist strays from truthfulness into fiction. The artistic voice of this talented musician and seemingly nice guy is obscured by shtick. And for that, Director Edwin Wald is at fault.
Still, there’s more than enough talent in those hands and, it seems, genuineness in his heart, to believe a reworked Piano Diaries in a cabaret setting could allow Saltzman to share his story, his songs and his dream with necessary authenticity.
Piano Diaries performs at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave., Chicago, through July 6. Cost is. Further information and tickets ($27; $12 for age 10 and under) are available online at www.pianodiaries.com or by phone at 773-935-6875.