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'33 Variations' on memorable theme

By Lawrence Toppman
ltoppman@charlotteobserver.com

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I have spent two days trying to think up some witty lead for this review of “33 Variations,” and I give up. The musical puns and bits of trivia and semi-profound observations with which I planned to begin all sound like I’m working too hard to get you to attend Moisés Kaufman’s play. So just go.

Whether or not you like classical music, whether or not you care about history, whether or not you’re caught up by medical dramas or mysteries or parent-child conflict, you’ll find food for thought here if you’re interested in humankind at all. (If not, “Cirque Dreams Holidaze” will reach Charlotte in three weeks.)

The show, directed by Charles LaBorde for Carolina Actors Studio Theatre, slowly allows us to sound its depths.

Katherine Brandt (Cynthia Farbman Harris) goes to Germany with a question whose answer could secure her niche in musicological history: Why did Beethoven, all but deaf by 1819 and virtually inactive for the previous five years, seize on an insignificant waltz by a music publisher and turn it into the Diabelli Variations, one of the two greatest sets of piano variations ever? (The other is Bach’s Goldberg Variations.)

Her body will soon succumb to Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS), which has no cure. Daughter Clara (Martina Logan) wants her mom to stay in America and get what treatment she can; German librarian Gertrude Ladenberger (Meg Wood) insists Katherine can attain her goal before dying.

Yet almost half the play takes place 190 years earlier. Publisher Anton Diabelli (Bob Paolino) has invited dozens of Vienna-based composers to write one variation apiece (for musicians at home to play) on a modest waltz he composed.

Instead, Ludwig van Beethoven (Christian Casper) spends bits of four years composing 33 variations that last more than an hour and overtax all but the most gifted players. (Onstage pianist Marty Gregory copes gamely with them during the show, providing musical illustrations for dialogues.)

Without straining, Kaufman explores many parallels between Brandt and Beethoven.

Both are losing the physical attribute they most need to communicate: She the ability to speak, he the ability to hear. Both have someone who loves and protects them: She has her daughter and the male nurse who’s drawn to Clara (Samuel Crawford); he has helpful Anton Schindler (Tom Scott). Both transcend physical limitations to leave something precious behind, and both appear to be leaving life near the same point. (Beethoven died at 56; Katherine seems to be 50-ish.)

Projection designer Donald Devet and set designer James Edward Burns (whose creation yields an “Aha!” moment midway through Act 2) help us flow back and forth in time.

Kaufman uses quotations – one long speech of Diabelli’s comes almost verbatim from something he said – and sticks close to historical facts I know about Beethoven. Yet the older characters are as vivid as the modern ones; Casper’s Beethoven, a walking embodiment of bipolarity (as some think the composer was), has a luminous moment where he visualizes a fugue while pianist Gregory plays out his “thoughts.”

Logan and Scott make sympathetic caretakers, the one serving a difficult mother and the other an almost impossible master. But Kaufman directs most of our empathy toward Beethoven and Brandt. Harris, a CAST favorite, crowns the show with a performance in which strength and frailty strike exactly the right balance.

Toppman: 704-358-5232
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