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Bawl Over Beethoven, Tell Tchaikovsky the Blues

Ed Rampell: Philosophically this gloomy one-man exercise is more “odious” than “Ode.” Felder mentions Beethoven’s politics only in passing and otherwise overlooks Ludwig van’s rendering in music the Age of Reason’s noblest sentiments.

BEETHOVEN Theater Review

Hershey Felder

With much justification Hershey Felder has cornered a niche market for himself. For about 20 years the gifted actor/musician writes what are essentially one-man shows wherein he reenacts great composers, with a period-costumed Felder telling us about and acting out the stories of their lives, while simultaneously accompanying himself on the piano. Including his latest, Felder has portrayed nine famed musicians and I’ve seen three of his unique bio-plays. I loved Felder’s Leonard Bernstein at the Geffen and also enjoyed his Irving Berlin and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky shows at the Laguna Playhouse.

However, when I entered the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts’ Bram Goldsmith Theater, the set looked more like the scenery for Bram Stoker’s Dracula than for a 90 minute play called Beethoven. The entire stage was designed by Felder to look like a cemetery, which right away had this Ludwig van fan scratching his head. Why in this or any other world would someone present a live theater piece about history’s most brilliant composer (something Felder and I agree upon) with a graveyard motif?

As if Felder anticipated controversy he opened the one-man show with assertions that the story the audience was about to behold was true, telling ticket buyers at the sold out premiere that the play was based on the text by Dr. Gerhard von Breuning (whom Felder also depicts onstage). Now, I’m positive that Hershey Felder knows a lot more about Beethoven than this critic does, and I realize the star worked with researcher Meghan Maiya on this piece. Having said that, when a curtain lifts with a performer insisting and trying to justify that what you’re about to see is fact-based, it should automatically set off alarms and the alert viewer’s bullshit antennae should rise.

Beethoven, which is directed by repeat Felder collaborator and TV/film director Joel Zwick, may rely on the 1863-ish text of an eyewitness who knew the composer, but his recollections of a third of a century later are based on the memories of a 12 year old boy. So this source raises questions about reliability, but beyond that Felder admitted in a very self-indulgent Q&A following the one-acter to his making suppositions about Beethoven’s private life. He cast doubt on tales about Ludwig van’s love life, suggesting that they, including the musician’s “Immortal Beloved” (whoever she was - or wasn’t) were probably figments of Beethoven’s imagination. As if it’s a stretch of the imagination to envisage Europe’s most famous, beloved composer, who was probably in the money (as well as out the money) at times, having love affairs. I mean, Beethoven was the equivalent of a rock star and weren’t there any groupies around 19th century Vienna and Germany?

I am reminded of the vaudeville comedian Marlon Brando would quote when he was asked about some juicy personal tidbit. The Method actor would cite Jack Pearl’s catchphrase: “Vas you dere, Charlie?” The evidence Felder cites is flimsy, but whether or not Ludwig van was promiscuous or died a virgin or whutevah, really, is it any of our business? I admit that’s it’s titillating and scintillating to pry into the private lives of geniuses, etc., but isn’t this an invasion of their privacy? Should we be publicly reading their personal correspondence?

The kindest word I can use to describe Felder’s impersonation of Beethoven and the artifice he constructed around it is “dubious.” Out of respect for Hershey Felder, whose other shows I liked, and the fact that he received a standing ovation on opening night at the Wallis Annenberg Center, I won’t go into how strongly I object to this depiction of Ludwig van as a daft, slovenly person. Although in the post-play Q&A (which served as an advertisement for Felder’s next impersonation: Breaking news, it’s Claude Debussy) the actor/writer eschewed the notion that Beethoven was “crazy,” Felder’s portrayal is dangerously close to being of a “Mad Ludwig.”

Where was that creative genius who expressed the heartfelt sentiments of the European Enlightenment, the ideals of the 18th-19th century German philosophers Immanuel Kant and G.W.F. Hegel, by setting Friedrich Schiller’s immortal words to such a rapturous melody that concludes Beethoven’s “9th Symphony,” the “Ode to Joy” or “Choral”:

“Joy, bright spark of divinity,
Daughter of Elysium,
Fire-inspired we tread
Within thy sanctuary.

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“Thy magic power re-unites
All that custom has divided,
All men become brothers,
Under the sway of thy gentle wings.”

Philosophically this gloomy one-man exercise is more “odious” than “Ode.” Felder mentions Beethoven’s politics only in passing and otherwise overlooks Ludwig van’s rendering in music the Age of Reason’s noblest sentiments.

To be fair, when Felder plays “Ode to Joy” on his piano the stage is starlit in a lovely visualization of the composer’s philosophy (lighting and projection design by Christopher Ash with Lawrence Siefert). But philosophically this gloomy one-man exercise is more “odious” than “Ode.” Felder mentions Beethoven’s politics only in passing and otherwise overlooks Ludwig van’s rendering in music the Age of Reason’s noblest sentiments. And contrary to Felder’s assertion, I really don’t believe that Beethoven refused to bow to aristocrats because he believed himself to be one of them (hence the “van” in his full name) - it was arguably because of his democratic impulses and hatred of royalty. Plus, as a genius, he knew that possessors’ of mere titles were not his “betters” or “superiors.”

One may argue that this was a show about music, not politics, but Felder used his Tchaikovsky one-man act to attack Vladimir Putin and Russian homophobia. But I suspect that in the case of Felder’s Beethoven I am merely preaching to ears deafer than Ludwig’s tragically had become.

Be that is it may (or may not - you might completely disagree with me), the best part of Beethoven was Felder’s tickling of the ivories. Although he might have sometimes played the wrong key, even this debatable depiction could not spoil Ludwig’s beloved immortal melodies and music.

As said, Felder received a standing ovation at the premiere, so your reviewer may be wrongheaded in his assessment. You’re free to disagree. But I call them as I see them and even if Felder’s assessment of Beethoven is accurate I still prefer to believe in my perception of him. To tell you the god’s honest truth, I even preferred Alex’s (Malcolm McDowell) bizarre interpretation of Ludwig van in Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 A Clockwork Orange to Hershey Felder’s glum, depressing version of a visionary artist, the deaf genius who transcended his disability to change forever how humanity hears.

Beethoven is being performed Tuesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. through July 1 in the Bram Goldsmith Theater, Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90210. For info: (310)746-4000; .

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell

L.A.-based film historian/reviewer Ed Rampell presents a symposium August 10th in San Diego: The third edition of“The Hawaii Movie and Television Book”co-authored by Rampell is available at: . Rampell is co-presenting a live stage tribute to Rev. King and the 55th Anniversary of the March on Washington: .