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Beethoven and ALS cross paths in the thought-provoking 33 VARIATIONS @ Beck Center

Roy Berko
(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

One of the major questions musicologists have asked for years is why the brilliant Ludwig van Beethoven devoted four years of his life to writing 33 variations of what is considered to be a very mediocre waltz by Anton Diabelli.

Answers range from Beethoven’s need for money, that he perceived that the waltz piece was musically greater than it was credited with being, that he wanted to out-do Bach, who wrote The Goldberg Variations which numbered 30,  or, that as his hearing moved toward deafness he wanted to create a piece that would be forever remembered.

ALS, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis is a progressive degenerative illness that affects the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, and eventually leads to whole body paralysis.  It is often referred to as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, named after the great New York Yankee who brought world attention to the illness when he retired from baseball after contracting the sickness.

What do Beethoven and ALS have in common?  They are joint topics of Moisés Kaufman’s poignant 33 VARIATIONS, now on stage at Beck Center for the Arts.

The script examines the creative process, the differences between obsessive and non-focused minds, how illness affects people, what the differences are between friendship and love, how the past and present can overlap, the meaning of genius, and how making variations in either music or life can bring about awakenings.

The story examines how Beethoven, in his later life, created a major musical masterpiece, and the journey of Katherine Brandt, a musicologist, as she attempts to discover why Beethoven was so possessed with writing The Diabelli Variations.

We simultaneously view Beethoven losing his hearing, losing his rationality, and Brandt’s desire to complete her work before ALS freezes her body and eventually kills her.

Using a creative format, Kaufman creates parallel and overlapping universes.  We are in Vienna, Austria, in 1819 and again in 1823, and simultaneously in New York and Germany in the present.  Beethoven is stressfully creating music, Brandt is researching and writing what will be her last position paper, using information from Bonn’s Library, which is the major depository of Beethoven’s papers, letters, diaries and manuscripts.

Beethoven struggles to write and cope with his problems, Brandt struggles to not only find an answer to why Beethoven undertook to write the 33 variations, but to work out problems with her daughter and face inevitable death.  In an emotionally charged final scene, we learn whether Brandt was successful in solving the Beethoven riddle.

The play opened in New York in 2009 with Jane Fonda portraying Katherine, in her first Broadway appearance in forty-six years.  Both the play and Fonda received Tony nominations.

The Beck production, under the focused direction of Sarah May, is creatively staged.  Seeing several different places at once allows for the hundred year time variance, and creates an intriguing effect.

The acting is universally strong.  Each performer creates a clearly identifiable person.  Dana Hart rants and rages as Beethoven.  He crawls under the piano, ear against a leg of the instrument, so that his body can vibrate to the feel of the piano, because his deafness disallows for his hearing the music he has fashioned.  He clearly creates irrationality as he castigates Anton, his ever vigilant assistant, while being dependent on the man.

Maryann Nagel withers before our eyes as her ALS attacks Katherine’s body.  She puts down Clara, her daughter, for not being focused, but suffers because of her obsessive nature.  Her fight for completion of her goal of determining Beethoven’s motives is clearly etched.

Debbie Keppler’s Clara is a nicely developed character, as is Matt O’Shea’s Mike, Katherine’s nurse and Clara’s socially awkward boyfriend. Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger, the curator of the Beethoven memorabilia collection, who, at the start reluctantly helps Katherine, is clearly created by Mary Alice Beck.  Both Brian Pedaci (Anton Disabelli) and Trey Gilpin (Anton Schindler) nicely portray their characters.

Pianist Stuart Raleigh interprets and performs the selected variations with strong musical ability.

Trad Burns simple set, which is nicely fleshed out by Ian Hinz’s scene setting projections, works well.  Angelina Herin’s costumes clearly delineate each character’s era.

As my pianist and composer grandson, Alex, one of the kid reviewers who often accompany me a play in order to give a different generational view of the offering, commented, “The play held my attention, while teaching me new insights into Beethoven, and how variations can not only be a part of music, but also make for alterations in life.”  He praised Raleigh for not only playing well, but for being able to sustain the quality while performing such a long and fragmented composition.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  33 VARIATIONS is an intriguing theatrical experience.  The well written script is effectively interpreted by director Sarah May and well performed by an excellent cast.  You don’t have to know anything about music, Beethoven, or the research process to enjoy the multi-messaged work. You should leave with a new appreciation of the musical process, gain an understanding of ALC, and be aware of the fragility of life’s journey.
33VARIATIONS is scheduled to run through NOVEMBER 17 at Beck Center for the Arts.  For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or