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The Play-Goer: 33 Variations

Solving the mystery of Beethoven’s greatest work

Musicologist Katherine Brandt (Rebecca Downs), at left, center, meets the composer as the rest of the cast looks on.
      B — as in Bach, Beethoven and Brahms — is the most revered letter in music. One of the three great Bs, Beethoven, devoted five years to the works of another B composer, B as in so-so, like a B actor. 
      Prolifically ordinary Austrian composer-turned-publisher Anton Diabelli (Mark T. Allen) wrote a little patriotic waltz and invited his most famous peers to contribute variations for a self-promotional anthology. If Beethoven’s (Greg Jones Ellis) participation was an unexpected coup, his 33 Variations were a bigger surprise, considered by many his greatest piano composition. 
     The big question is why Beethoven bothered to turn a mediocre 50-second ditty into 50 minutes of the world’s most beautiful music. This is the mystery Moisés Kaufman explores in his 2009 Tony Award-winning play by the same title, and he does it with a grand piano onstage to transport the audience back in time. The play, comprised of 33 vignettes, is an expansive story about love and death, work and obsession, struggles and suffering. In Colonial Players’ production, onstage through November 12, classical pianist Ryan Shookman plays the variations while musicologist Katherine Brandt (Rebecca Downs) seeks to solve the mystery. 
      Katherine is as obsessive as Beethoven in her quest for greatness, both professional and personal. Yet her myopic focus blinds her to what is right in front of her: on the one hand, the special qualities Beethoven finds in Diabelli’s music; on the other, the special qualities others find in her daughter, Clara (Victoria Scalfaro), whom she considers a dilettante.
      Spurring on this obsession is a crippling illness she ignores to pursue her research in Bonn, where she meets Gertrude Ladenburger (Jean Berard), a music librarian who befriends her. Katherine is as blind to her illness’ power as she is to Clara’s crippling aversion to love. But with the onset of illness, the mother-daughter relationship shifts, especially once Clara becomes involved with her mother’s nurse, Mike (Paul Valleau). 
      Throughout Katherine’s quest, the action shuttles from New York to Bonn and Vienna, with Diabelli pestering Beethoven to hurry up, and Beethoven scribbling music on the apartment shutters and browbeating his servant Anton Schindler (Dann Alagna). The spectacle makes one pine for old Europe with its ornate parlors and forbearing friendships.
      In a cast of Colonial Players’ veterans, Scalfaro — the exception — and her stage mother Downs play off each other as if in a duet. They even look related. Like Downs, Ellis embodies Beethoven’s philosophy to “take fate by the throat and bend it to their will.” His Beethoven is a mercurial genius with the impractical obsession that implies. Valleau’s nurse Mike is sympathetic as a professional stuck between his patient and his girlfriend. As Beethoven’s servant, Alagna is every ounce the indulgent helpmate. Allen’s Diabelli is a delightfully self-impressed buffoon. Berard plays music librarian Ladenburger as a hazelnut of a woman, hard outside but soft beneath her bitter skin. Dirk Gertz and McAndrew Noonan make a smart ensemble/stage crew, acting as ushers, airline attendants and orderlies.
     Written by a man, 33 Variations is impressive for its insights into mother-daughter relationships with its delicate dance of respect and secrets tempered by a love matured beyond its origin. As a show that tends from pedantic to depressing, 33 Variations packs some laughs. But if you have ever helped a loved one die, bring a hanky.
     One major aspect of the story that is not credible is Beethoven’s deafness. The script pays lip service to his lip-reading skills, but he scarcely makes eye contact with anyone, never yells and never rages at the injustice of his silence. Another frustration is the use of sheer curtains as projection screens, for they obscure sight lines and blind sections of the audience.
     Without Shookman’s sensitive musicianship there would be no show, so feel the syncopation, let the shifting keys wash over you and obsess as Beethoven did over four repeated notes.
     Be warned, though. This is a long show, two hours and 45 minutes with intermission, with Act II feeling like a dream state of mellifluous music. So come well rested and ponder the life lessons the dying know best.
     Time is limited. Should we spend it chasing opportunity or love?
Director: Terry Averill. Stage manager: Ernie Morton. Sound: Richard Atha-Nicholls. Lights: Alex Brady. ­Costumes: Carrie Brady. Projections: Eric Hufford. 
Thurs., Fri., Sat. 8pm, Sun. 2pm thru Nov. 12, 
The Colonial Players, Annapolis, $23 w/discounts, rsvp:

The One-Dollar Difference
33 Variations sets the story of a musicologist diagnosed with this incurable disease against Beethoven’s deafness.
For every ticket sold to the current production, 33 Variations, The Colonial Players of Annapolis will donate $1 to the DC/MD/VA chapter of the ALS Association. Each ticket makes a One-Dollar Difference.