CAMBRIDGE - While “Three Pianos’’ is animated by a love for one particular composer - Franz Schubert - there is a broader notion lurking at its heart: that music, all music, has a singular power to speak not just to us but for us.
That might make “Three Pianos’’ sound like a solemn affair, which it’s not. In the beguiling production that is now at American Repertory Theater under the direction of Rachel Chavkin, a spirit of whimsy prevails for much of the evening, with plenty of wisecracks and slapstick elements.
But when the mood turns stormy or elegiac, and when “Three Pianos’’ touches deep chords of longing or solitude, it is with the understanding that nothing can pull you through a dark night of the soul like music.
Rick Burkhardt, Alec Duffy, and Dave Malloy won an Obie Award for this music-theater piece, which is structured around “Winterreise,’’ Schubert’s musical settings of 24 poems by Wilhelm Müller. The composer wrote “Winterreise’’ in 1827, just a year before he died at age 31.
The show’s conceptual conceit is that Burkhardt, Duffy, and Malloy, finding themselves at loose ends on a wintry evening, decide to perform the entire song cycle, in a manner reminiscent of the “Schubertiades,’’ the private musical salons at which Schubert and his friends used to gather. (In keeping with that conceit, wine is served to the audience, as if they are guests at the salon.)
The narrative of “Winterreise’’ is of a “wanderer’’ who travels aimlessly through a winter landscape after he loses the love of his life to another man. In a contemporary (and mostly lighthearted) parallel, Burkhardt and Duffy periodically try to cheer up the morose Malloy, who is brooding over a recent breakup and agonizing over whether he should call his ex. All three characters seem to be more than a little lost; while largely confident in their assertions about the meaning of Schubert’s music, there is the pervasive sense that when it comes to their own lives, they are uncertain wanderers. In a startling scene late in “Three Pianos,’’ friction between Duffy and Burkhardt leads to an explosive outburst by the latter.
At times, the trio enacts scenes from the Schubertiades, with the floppy-haired Burkhardt playing Schubert. At others, they offer irreverent commentary on the songs. Introducing “Der Lindenbaum (The Linden Tree),’’ Burkhardt observes: “It’s not like the other songs at all. It’s very popular.’’ There are meditations on mortality and immortality (the artistic kind), questions underscored by Andreea Mincic’s set design, with trees reaching for the sky and gravestones poking up from snow-covered earth.
“Three Pianos’’ offers a scattershot tour of musical history, describing, for example, the differing impact on music between patronage of composers by the nobility and patronage by the church. Along the way, “Three Pianos’’ name-checks everyone from Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn to Tom Waits and Elton John.
Like Victor Borge, these performers realize the comedic possibilities of pianos, and they make creative use of the three that are onstage (and of a glockesnpiel and a hunting horn as well). The pianos are constantly on the move, functioning not just as musical instruments but as a barricade, a bar, and a kind of merry-go-round.
Lines from Müller’s poems are projected on a screen above the stage, and many of them are moving in their evocation of romantic desolation. But “Three Pianos’’ is at its most potent when Schubert’s music takes us to that place where words can’t go.