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Salt Lake City company makes music in Beethoven's '33 Variations'

Published November 1, 2013 1:15 pm

Stage • New theater company brings to life a female scholar obsessed with Beethoven.
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When is a bit of musical doggerel worth obsessing over?

In Moisés Kaufman's play "33 Variations," that's the question driving musicologist Katherine Brandt — "I need to know what he saw in this waltz" — as she researches the years Beethoven spent writing variations of what the composer considered a banal "beerhall waltz" written by his publisher Anton Diabelli.

Brandt (Anne Cullimore Decker) is also troubled by friction with her adult daughter, Clara (Michele Case Rideout), and faces her own physical decline due to a recent diagnosis of progressive Lou Gehrig's disease.

"Along this journey, we watch some beautiful moments as Dr. Brandt finds her relationship with her daughter," says Jesse Peery, who is directing the Utah premiere, with an eight-member cast that also includes Ron Frederickson as Ludwig van Beethoven. "And we watch Beethoven coming to the realization that he's gone completely deaf. This play is funny, tender and heartwarming."

Kaufman's play, which draws parallels between Brandt's physical decline and Beethoven's loss of hearing, jumps in time between contemporary day and 19th-century Austria. The script dramatizes a question that intrigues music scholars: Just why did Beethoven stop work on masterworks, such as his Ninth Symphony and Missa Solemnis, to obsess over writing variations of a theme he allegedly considered undistinguished?

In an era when accomplished women are still underrepresented across media culture, "33 Variations" deeply explores the emotions of a female scholar facing physical decline. The play is part of a recent trio of Utah productions dramatizing the emotions of older women, including Decker's 2009 turn as opera diva Maria Callas in Salt Lake Acting Company's "Master Class" and Sarah Shippobotham's portrayal of literary scholar Vivian Bearing in a 2006 University of Utah production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Wit."

Decker says the parallels between her character's pursuit of her career with Beethoven's focus on composing are surprising and interesting. She's intrigued with how Kaufman explores historical events, such as the time period when Beethoven was composing his variations, through imaginary characters.

As part of her research, she's consulted with a former neighbor with ALS to learn more about how the disease affects the physical body, while the mind stays intact. "We watch the deterioration of [the character's] body throughout the course of the play," Decker says. "She's learning this, even while time is fleeing away from her, which happens to all of us. We think we have forever."

Kaufman, whose Tectonic Theater Project developed "The Laramie Project," won a 2004 Tony Award for directing Doug Wright's "I Am My Own Wife" on Broadway. The playwright directed "33 Variations" for the play's 2007 debut run at Washington, D.C.'s Arena Stage. The show's New York launch in 2009 captured headlines, thanks to Jane Fonda's star turn as Brandt, her return to Broadway after 46 years.

Kaufman's script has drawn blood from some theater critics. The New Yorker's John Lahr termed it "a musicology lecture disguised as an intellectual detective story within an emotional melodrama," while The New York Times' Ben Brantley called Kaufman's writing "often soggy." (Disclosure: In 2008, I was on the American Theatre Critics Association committee that selected "33 Variations" for the Harold and Mimi Steinberg New Play Award.)

Peery is directing "33 Variations" for the new Silver Summit Theatre Company, which raised some of the budget for the company's third production from 44 donors through a recent Kickstarter campaign. The company has begun the lengthy process of applying for nonprofit status and is committed to paying its actors, says Rideout, Silver Summit's artistic director.

One of the challenges of this play with music is in combining projections of the score with the live music of the "Diabelli Variations," played by the onstage character of The Pianist (music director Anne Puzey). Through that mix, Peery says he aims for the audience to see, feel and hear the evolution of the musical variations as Beethoven delves deeper into the waltz while he's losing his hearing.

Performing Beethoven's variations as a stage character, not in concert, is a challenge, says Puzey, a classically trained pianist who is mostly known to Utah audiences for her work as a music director for musical theater productions, as well as her 25 years teaching music and leading choirs at Taylorsville's Bennion Junior High.

She's fascinated with the playwright's decision to include a pianist character in the cast of "33 Variations." "There's a moment when Beethoven talks directly to me as he's composing," Puzey says. "He says, 'Crescendo,' and I crescendo. And yet in his music, he gives the least amount of instruction."


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'33 Variations'

Silver Summit Theatre Company presents Moisés Kaufman's play.

When • Thursday-Saturday, Nov. 7-9, 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, Nov. 10, 2 p.m.; Thursday-Saturday, Nov. 14-16, 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, Nov. 17, 2 p.m.

Where • The Leonardo, 209 E. 500 South, Salt Lake City

Tickets • $22 in advance; $25 at the door; at http://www.BuyYourTix.com.

Questions • Call 801-541-7376 or email boxoffice@SilverSummitTheatre.org.