Thursday, September 17, 2009

Beethoven, As I Knew Him, Cleveland Play House

(Hershey Felder as Gerhard von Breuning, a friend of Ludwig van Beethoven )

It’s always fascinating to explore the lives of geniuses, for their minds work in ways most of us (who are still trying to figure out how a Slinky works) can never imagine. This is why Hershey Felder has achieved some renown by dealing with famous composers--George Gershwin, Frederic Chopin and Ludwig van Beethoven--in his self-written, one-man shows.

The third leg of Felder’s composer troika, Beethoven, As I Knew Him, is now on the Cleveland Play House stage. And while it has some fine moments it doesn’t have the zest and lilt of the pianist-actor’s tribute to George Gershwin, which played the Play House two years ago.

Part of this no doubt is due to the subject matter. It must have been dark inside Ludwig’s mind, what with his troubled childhood, marked by outrageous physical abuse by his father, and Ludwig’s descent into deafness as an adult.

The high points of Felder’s performance all consist of his piano playing; he is a sensitive keyboard artist who is clearly devoted to his subject matter. So when he essays the Moonlight Sonata or bits of the Fifth and Ninth Symphonies, the music has the power to transport.

But Felder is less able as a writer. The high (and often the low) points of Ludwig’s life are laid out, as the title suggests, by Gerhard von Breuning, the son of a man who was Beethoven’s close friend. But the facts seem clumsily stitched together, as if from a Wikipedia profile. Felder the playwright never pauses long enough to allow us to examine what really made Beethoven tick, and so the narrative part of the play feels like a clever lecture by an inventive professor—not a transformative performance by a theatrical craftsman.

This impression is reinforced by Felder’s less-than-consummate skills as an actor. Employing a variety of German accents, some of which border on Mel Brooks’ borscht belt-style burlesque, Felder plays a variety of different people without clearly defining anyone. And more than a few words and sentences are lost in the guttural barrage.

What does come across is the sad life Beethoven led. Much of this darkness is captured in the set, originally designed by the Arizona Theatre Company, and in the lighting by designer Richard Norwood. Felder is surrounded by blackness for all of the 100-minute show, with the only supporting visuals being some eerie images projected on a large book-shaped screen behind the grand piano.

But we never glimpse the ray of light that pierced Beethoven’s tortured existence, the beam of inspiration that clearly illuminated his stunning musical genius. And that makes this journey into the world of Beethoven more like a glib drive-by—it whets the appetite but does little more.

Beethoven, As I Knew Him
Through October 4 at the Cleveland Play House,
8500 Euclid Avenue, 216-795-7000

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