A Play With Music…Lots Of Music: 33 VARIATIONS at Civic Theatre of Allentown

by Jean Brenner

Kirk Lawrence as Ludwig von Beethoven; Robert Torres as Anton Diabelli; Michael Contreras as Schindler in Civic Theatre of Allentown's 33 VARIATIONS. (Photo credit Ken Ek)

33 VARIATIONS, a play by Moises Kauffman, opened Friday evening at Civic Theatre of Allentown on 19th Street, near the winter-quiet fairgrounds.

I approached my first visit to this historic theatre with uncertain expectations. Having researched the play, I had some doubts about how interesting it could be. What a delightful surprise awaited my companions and me.

This is a play about the progressive deaths of two people, which could be an audience “downer,” but if you have seen MAN OF LA MANCHA, JULIUS CAESAR, TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE, LOVE STORY, for instance, you know they are not just about the deaths of strong persons with missions, they tell the story of the fascinating journeys of the protagonists.

33 VARIATIONS is a story of musicologist Dr. Katherine Brandt on a journey to uncover the reason Ludwig von Beethoven wrote 33 variations on a waltz written by composer Anton Diabelli.  We watch Brandt pursue her Beethoven research in Bonn, Germany, more and more determined to complete her work as she becomes increasingly incapacitated from her recently diagnosed ALS (Lou Gehrig’s) Disease.

At the same time, in a parallel universe, we see Beethoven losing his hearing as he frenetically continues to write more variations on the Diabelli waltz.

Artistic Director William Sanders’ direction is superb. His vision, experience and skill are evident in every actor’s move. Designing the unusual set covered with pieces of music, was technical director, Will Morris, who also designed costumes and sound, assisted in sound design by Helena Confer.

Kirk Lawrence as Ludwig von Beethoven in Civic Theatre of Allentown's 33 VARIATIONS. (Photo credit: Ken Ek)

Technology is as integral to the success of the production as is the acting; lighting, sound, and projections were incorporated almost flawlessly throughout.

Nearly all of the actors in this non-Equity cast performed to professional standards. Kirk Lawrence becomes Beethoven from the first moment we see him in 1819 to his death in 1823. He lives and breathes his music, arriving at his pinnacle in a second act scene when, after his hearing is gone, he conducts one of his 33 variations alone, center stage, while the audience hears the music playing in his mind.  That soliloquy was simply breathtaking! Lawrence received an ovation from the appreciative opening night audience.

Becky Engborg skillfully embraces the difficult role of Catherine Brandt, played by Jane Fonda on Broadway in 2009. Not always likeable, Brandt’s personality is cold, determined and strong. She pushes through the dwindling use of her hands and limbs and her lack of ability to breathe, making believable the progression of the disease. It is only as she nears the end of life that she accepts her daughter’s help and comfort. Through pain and fear, the musicologist persevered, completing a manuscript which her daughter presents to colleagues back in New York after Brandt’s death.

Andrea Wittchen as Gertie and Becky Engborg as Dr. Catherine Brandt in Civic Theatre of Allentown's 33 VARIATIONS. (Photo credit: Ken Ek)

Elegantly costumed Robert Torres delightfully portrays a humorous Anton Diabelli, composer and music publisher.  He is both a foil and friend of Beethoven, pleased that Beethoven continues to create variations on his waltz, but determined to have the music published in a timely fashion.

Michael S. Contereras is Anton Schindler, assistant and friend of Beethoven. His performance is interesting and well done.  He shows fondness, anger, love, devotion and compassion for his “Master,” often bringing him food when he forgets to eat, yet sometimes being on the verge of leaving the nearly crazy, unappreciative composer.

Andrea Witchen stoically shows the reserved personality of Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger, the German librarian of Beethoven’s music archives in Bonn. During their time together, she offers support and compassion to Brandt as her condition worsens.

Alexandra Griffin plays the less-developed character of daughter, Clara Brandt.  Her portrayal strengthens as the play progresses and the necessity of her role grows.  By show’s end, Griffin becomes believable as the oft-ignored and unappreciated daughter.

Christopher Olson is Katherine Brandt’s male nurse, Mike Clark. A chance meeting develops sweetly into a relationship between Clara and Mike, continuing when he joins Clara on her trip to Germany where he, too helps to care for Clara’s dying mother.

Scenes ranged from quiet and thoughtful and touching to strong and shocking as 33 VARIATIONS provides an entertaining, yet intellectually stimulating evening at the theatre. This play meets my test: It is worth doing and it is being done well at the Civic Theatre of Allentown.

Listen to what audience members have to say…

by Moises Kauffman
Directed by William Sanders
February 24-March 10, 2012
527 N. 19TH Street
Allentown, PA  18104




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