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'33 Variations' energizes musical history with strong performances

Published November 11, 2013 9:27 am

Theater review • Anne Cullimore Decker and Ron Frederickson shine in production, which loses momentum in long second act.
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At the end of Act I in Moisés Kaufman's "33 Variations," receiving its regional premiere by Silver Summit Theatre Company, the multiple strands of the story come together.

Musicologist Katherine Brandt and archivist Gertrude Ladenberger pore over Beethoven's musical sketchbooks in Bonn, Germany; Katherine's daughter, Clara, and her boyfriend, Mike, worry about her mother's health in New York; and two centuries earlier, Beethoven's secretary, Anton, vainly tries to comfort and support the ailing composer as he desperately tries to complete his variations.

Lines overlap and echo each other like musical themes and variations until both Katherine and Beethoven cry simultaneously, "I must have a chance to finish the work."

A similar scene occurs late in Act II when the actors converge to sing the Kyrie from Beethoven's Mass.

But overall, "33 Variations" needs more of these moments, as the play loses focus and momentum during the long second act.

Despite such lapses, the production compensates with some strong and insightful performances.

Kaufman's play is a study of two obsessed people whose lives are winding down. Katherine (Anne Cullimore Decker) is beginning to suffer the effects of Lou Gehrig's disease (ALS) but is determined to discover why Beethoven (Ron Frederickson) devoted so much of his declining time and attention composing variations on a "less-than-stellar" waltz created by his publisher, Anton Diabelli (Aaron Buckner). "What was there about this mediocre waltz that captured his imagination?"

As she unearths information in the archives, we see Beethoven, who is rapidly becoming deaf, undergoing those same experiences as he struggles to create "a new language of music," according to his secretary, Anton (Allen Smith). Pianist Anne Puzey plays sections from the variations to unify their intersecting worlds and illustrate steps in the work's progress.

Katherine's preoccupation with the mediocre also colors her relationship with her daughter, Clara (Michele Rideout). She interprets Clara's refusal to be pinned down to one interest or occupation as "meandering through life."

Eventually archivist Gertie (Betsy West), who becomes her friend, helps her see that "everything you don't understand you call mediocre. It is you who cannot see your daughter."

Reconciliation between mother and daughter is strengthened by Mike (Kit Anderton), Clara's boyfriend, who also is a nurse. He shows Clara how to exercise her mother's failing limbs in one of the plays' loveliest scenes.

Decker and Frederickson turn in knockout performances as Katherine and Beethoven. Decker unerringly conveys the frustration of a bright, resourceful woman as her body fails her as well as vividly documenting the physical progress of that disintegration.

Frederickson's blustering, autocratic, sometimes tormented Beethoven is a force of nature, bowling over everyone and everything in his path.

Rideout and Anderton, as Clara and Mike, make a tentative start but gain confidence as the play progresses.

West is perfect as the outspoken, opinionated Gertie, deftly transitioning from stuffy, inflexible archivist to compassionate companion.

The two Antons, Smith and Buckner, are less successful, falling in and out of their characters.

Jesse Peery's direction also is uneven. He moves the actors smoothly around the Leonardo's confined stage, but his pacing is problematic, slowing down a play that is already long and talky.

Mikal Troy Klee's imaginative set projections and sound design and Gamyr Worf's shifting lighting make the most of the Leonardo's limited resources.

"33 Variations" is a challenging play for this new theater company to attempt, and — even though it's not always successful — it promises interesting things from this young company.

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Theater review: '33 Variations'

P While Silver Summit's inaugural production has some underlying problems it compensates with well-crafted, emotionally satisfying performances.

When • Reviewed on Nov. 7; Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through Nov. 17

Where • The Leonardo, 209 East 500 South, Salt Lake City

Running time • Two and a half hours (including an intermission)

Tickets • $22 in advance, $25 at the door, at http://www.BuyYourTix.com, 801-541-7376 or boxoffice@SilverSummitTheatre.org. The play contains adult language.