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33 Variations – A Masterpiece at The Little Theatre of Alexandria

Jordan Wright
April 29, 2013
Special to The Alexandria Times


Elliott Bales (Beethoven) - Photo credit Doug Olmsted

Elliott Bales (Beethoven) – Photo credit Doug Olmsted

In 33 Variations, now playing at The Little Theatre of Alexandria, we embark on an intellectual exercise into Beethoven’s intent when he composed thirty-three variations on his music publisher’s mediocre waltz.  Researcher Dr. Katherine Brandt (Sarah Holt) explores the cerebral territory of Beethoven’s sketches and gives us a window into the soul of the maestro.  Playwright Moisés Kaufman’s storyline jumps back and forth from 1819 though 1823 in Vienna as Beethoven descends into deafness and ill health, to present day New York and later Bonn, Germany where Brandt’s research centers around the composer.  This early period in Vienna where Beethoven (Elliott Bales) lived with his assistant Anton Schindler (Ken Gaul) is counterbalanced by a story set in the present of Brandt and her relationship with her daughter, Clara (Rebecca Phillips) and Clara’s boyfriend, Mike Clark (Matt Baughman).

Paralleling that Brandt too is dying having been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease.  Against the wishes of her doctor, she departs New York for Bonn to study Beethoven’s musical scripts under the tutelage of Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger (Melanie Bates).  “Here be dragons,” she exclaims defining the risky proposition.  She is soon joined by Clara and Mike who care for her as she weakens.

Melanie Bales (Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger) and Sarah Holt (Dr. Katherine Brandt) - Photo credit  Doug Olmsted

Melanie Bales (Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger) and Sarah Holt (Dr. Katherine Brandt) – Photo credit Doug Olmsted

For a man that seeks” freedom and progress” and considers himself “an instrument of God”, it is a tumultuous time in Vienna where the composer resides in a police state.  His contemporaries, Mozart, Hayden, Liszt and Schubert, are the reigning classical music luminaries of their time and competition among the musicians is fierce.  It is under this shadow and with failing health and little money that Beethoven is pressured to compose the variations for profit.  Soon he becomes obsessed with the waltz and its first four notes compel him to write ever more complicated and spectacular versions.  Anton Diabelli (David Rampy) is the impatient publisher, urging then threatening Beethoven to complete his opus.

David Rampy (Anton Diabelli) and Ken Gaul (Anton Schindler) - Photo credit Paul Olmsted

David Rampy (Anton Diabelli) and Ken Gaul (Anton Schindler) – Photo credit Paul Olmsted

As Brandt endeavors to intuit Beethoven’s reason for creating these works, she reveals much about herself, self-important and callously indifferent, and her relationship with her capricious yet devoted daughter, Clara is rocky.

It is an exciting moment in the theatre when the audience exits in a daze from the impact of such an emotionally charged tale and raves are coming from all sides.  But that is what I heard on opening night after a standing ovation and thunderous applause for a play that is both moving and breathtakingly performed.

How do you credit everyone in a review?  Let’s begin with the actors.  Sarah Holt carves a sharp and affecting portrait of the dying woman, a pedant with little care for anyone or anything beyond her work.  Her character is sharply contrasted by the charm and adorableness of Rebecca Phillips and Matt Baughman whose affectionate and hilarious interplay as the young lovers is so palpable that the audience roots for their love to succeed.  Counter that with the mad genius of Beethoven played by Elliott Bales in a tour de force performance.  It is the second time I have been awestruck by Bales in the past few months (most recently in The Drawer Boy at Port City Playhouse this February).

Beautifully directed by Joanna Henry with lighting from the team of Ken and Patti Crowley who have created an atmosphere that is both modern and mood setting.   Special credit goes to Matt Jeffrey as the onstage pianist, who gives a stellar rendition of excerpts from all thirty-three of the variations.

Highly recommended.

Through May 18th at The Little Theatre of Alexandria, 600 Wolfe Street. For tickets and information call the box office at 703 683-0496 or visit

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