LOGAN — 33 Variations is an intriguing play by Moisés Kaufman that follows musicologist Katherine Brandt (played by Suzan Hanson) as she tries to discover why Beethoven (played by Michael Ballam) wanted to write 33 different variations on a seemingly simple theme by a seemingly simple music publisher, Anton Diabelli (played by W. Lee Daily). What follows is a compelling tale of life, music, and discovery, currently on stage Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre, and directed by George Pinney.
As Katherine Brandt, Hanson was astounding in the role of a music researcher intrigued by the life of Beethoven and his interest in making variations to a waltz by Anton Diabelli. Hanson’s character has ALS, and the audience watches the progression of that disease. Hanson’s ability as an actress to physically morph into the portrayal of that illness still has me impressed with the level of commitment to characterization and physical prowess. As a person who has spent much of my career working with people with disabilities, I have watched the progression of disability and illness far too often, and it was hard to believe this was not a person who was actually afflicted. Rarely can I say this in a production.
Curtis Olds as Anton Schindler (Beethoven’s assistant) had the excellent image of a person who is trying to manage a difficult person that is a genius who is also losing their balance and their skills. The other superior acting talent of the evening was Joy Hermalyn in the role of Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger. Her German accent, dry humor and comedic timing were impeccable. She added a great deal of humanity to the storyline, helping Hanson as Brandt learn about Beethoven and also being a person with ALS.
The set consisted of a very large piano center stage, and pianist Nicolas Giusti came center stage at the beginning of the program while music notes were projected on screens behind him designed by projection designers Jeff Sugg and Carl “C.J.” Whitaker. Having Giusti on stage playing the variations as they were discussed in the script was such a lovely highlight and a testament to Kaufman’s writing. One of the most beautiful parts of writing was a scene where Beethoven was discussing much of his writing and inspiration for the variations. As the composer mentioned different chords and music theory, Giusti would play the music Beethoven described; Kaufman’s wording was sublimed when combined with Beethoven’s music.
The ambiance was overall lovely, though some of the lighting by designer Chris Wood was too flashy for the elegant story. Some of Michael Ballam’s choices as Beethoven, likewise, were distracting from the simple beauty of the story itself. Michael Ballam is a well known and well loved talent in this area, and he played the part of Beethoven to a level of almost too much perfection, leaving me wondering if there was any room for humanity in the character of Beethoven.
Vanessa Ballam played Clara Brandt (Katherine Brandt’s daughter), who struggles both with watching her mother’s illness and living up to her mother’s expectations. Like the elder Ballam, Vanessa’s characterization was almost too perfect. Clara is supposed to be a bit of a wanderer, a costume designer and a band member who is considering being a set designer, yet her hair looked perfect and her costumes, by costume designer Mallory Maria Prucha, looked like she was much more of a fashion designer than a costume designer. These are all small design choices that are not large enough to take away from the overall success of the full play, but do make the production fall short of its full potential.
The production’s minor flaws did not detract from the overall beauty of the show. 33 Variations is an absolute joy to watch, especially because of Hanson’s acting and Giusti’s performance at the piano. The live music and the interaction of the historic storyline with the modern storyline was interesting and well thought out, and Pinney’s direction was well executed.