33 Variations at the Ahmanson Review - Fonda Thrills

Georja: (Los Angeles, CA - February 10, 2010) Jane Fonda is a phenomenon.  She's the daughter of a Hollywood icon, an Oscar and Emmy winner, published author, exercise guru, as well as environmental and human rights activist and supporter of empowerment for women and girls. She is also a Broadway star.  Los Angelenos are lucky to be able to enjoy her in her Tony-nominated role as Dr. Brandt in the Ahmanson production of 33 Variations by Moises Kaufman. She exudes discipline, integrity and beauty and puts it all into her character. As Michael Ritchie, Artistic Director of the Ahmanson writes, "I had high expectations and she exceeded them...to realize that what she does offstage is as good as what she does onstage...It's a rare combination."

Musicologist Dr. Katherine Brandt (Jane Fonda) is obsessed with Beethoven (Zach Grenier) and his obsession with an obscure little waltz.

Gerald: It's all about beauty. What is it? How does it occur? Well, according to playwright-director Kaufman, the creative process is rooted in obsession. Beethoven becomes inexplicably obsessed, for several years, with writing variations on an innocent little waltz written (apparently as a kind of publicity stunt) by Viennese music publisher Anton Diabelli. In the present day, musicologist Dr. Katherine Brandt becomes obsessed with finding out the reasons behind Beethoven's obsession. Therein lies a two-hundred-year-old mystery: Why did he do it?

Dr. Brandt suffers, as Beethoven did, from a degenerative disease.

Georja: Brandt devotes the rest of her life to discovering this musical truth. She cares so deeply about Beethoven, that her daughter Clara, played as an adult by Samantha Mathis, had asked her once as a child if when she listens to the music whether she is listening to "God singing."

Why did Ludwig van Beethoven take years to write 33 Variations on a 50-second waltz tune?

Gerald: Obsession isn't the only parallel here. It's also illness -- specifically, degeneration. Both Dr. Brandt and Beethoven are in the final stages of their life journeys. But it's not just tragic. Evidently, and this would be according to Kaufman, creativity reaches its peak as life is about to wink out. And there's another parallel: The process of writing the variations begins with de-composition. Beethoven had to deconstruct Diabelli's ditty before he could rebuild it in thirty-three miraculous ways. Dr. Brandt comes to look on this feat as a kind of transformation, and indeed her character experiences her own personal transformation as a loving mother, as the play concludes.

Katherine's nurse Mike Clark (Greg Keller) and her opinionated daughter Clara (Samantha Mathis) enjoy an awkward first date.

Gerald: While I'm fascinated by the story, by the intellectual quest of it, the form of the play isn't all that engaging. Mind you, I'm talking about the material, not the power of the performances, which were stellar. In many of the scenes, the characters are facing front, looking out through the fourth wall, addressing the audience. Their monologues are about as engaging as lectures, and indeed some of Dr. Brandt's literally are lectures. Beethoven, too, gets a few long rants. The most emotional scenes are actually between the lovers Clara and Mike, and this is a subplot. The relationship between Katherine and her daughter is central, and should also be emotionally involving, but it's not. Katherine is cold and businesslike in the first half of the play, and that's her character flaw. But it puts distance between us, as it does with her daughter. By the time we like her more, it's almost too late.

Music publisher Anton Diabelli (Don Amendolia, L) and Beethoven's assistant Anton Schindler (Grant James Varjas) wonder at how long it's taking the great composer to get the job done.

Georja: Every actor in this piece takes their character and runs with it. Samantha Mathis as Clara is truthful as the very independent although caring daughter who often locks horns with her driven mother. Greg Keller as Mike Clark, her boyfriend, is amazingly agile, relaxed and humorous in every moment. Grant James Varjas shines as the quirky Anton Shindler, "friend of Beethoven"who always finds ways to care for his master, despite the constant bombastic eccentric ravings.  Beethoven himself, played to perfection by Zach Grenier, is always the bigger than life genius who we all want to befriend as well. Susan Kellermann as Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger draws a clear and engaging character, as does  Don Amendolia as the warm-hearted businessman Anton Diabelli who started it all.

Poring over old music scores Dr. Brandt forms a cautious friendship with archivist Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger (Susan Kellerman).

Gerald: The play and the music -- and the story behind the music -- are all fascinating. And the performances are strong. But given the ambitious theme -- the interaction of life, love, creativity, and music -- I expected it to touch my heart as well as my head, but it didn't.

Katherine and Ludwig find themselves on parallel tragic life paths.

Georja:  I agree; the idea is original and has many fascinating and wonderful aspects --not the least is Diane Walsh's live piano renditions of the Variations sprinkled throughout the story. Yet there is also a sense that the stories of Beethoven the musician and Brandt the musicologist are somewhat pushed and shoved into parallel. Contemporary and historic scenes are sometimes run at the same time, crescendoing cleverly into same language or emotions in both.  The bringing up of the Kyrie Eleison to add dramatic effect near the death scene seemed forced.  Still it is a fascinating and intriguing show and very worthwhile. And Jane Fonda is commanding the stage.

Pianist/Musical Director Diane Walsh plays the Variations on a Steinway (of course).

Georja Umano is an actress/comedienne and animal advocate. Gerald Everett Jones is the author of the Rollo Hemphill series of comic novels.

Photos by Craig Schwartz

33 Variations

Ahmanson Theatre
Center Theatre Group
601 W. Temple Street
Los Angeles, CA 90012

(213) 628-2272

Feb 9 - Mar 6, 2011
Tues - Fri 8pm
Sat 2pm and 8pm
Sun 1pm and 6:30pm

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