Hershey Felder typically writes and stars in shows that feature him playing a famous musician and composer. What’s different about San Diego Repertory Theatre’s production of Beethoven, however, is that he plays Dr. Gerhard von Breuning, a physician and friend of Ludwig van Beethoven.
Adapted from von Breuning’s book, “Aus dem Schwarzspanierhaus,” (the Schwarzspanierhaus being Beethoven’s last residence), the play begins at a graveyard in October 1863 Vienna. Gerhard makes a case to not bury Beethoven’s skull, in order that scientists could study it and try to understand what made him a musical genius. In backing up his argument, he narrates the story of Beethoven’s life, and the close bond between Beethoven and von Breuning’s father, Stephan.
Originally performed at The Old Globe in 2008 under the title, Beethoven As I Knew Him, the “newly revised” 2019 version is worth seeing for those who missed out on the original, as well as for those that saw it more than a decade ago. Changes to the script, director Joel Zwick’s fresh presentation and Felder’s delivery keeps the evening from being a mere revisiting of the old material.
As with every major solo show starring Felder, the artist is responsible for the entertainment value of the production. He plays Bethoven, Gerhard and Stephan von Breuning with colorful and individual personalities. His acting style for Gerhard is calm and eloquent, while his portrayal of Beethoven is full of anger and moments of sorrow.
Felder’s text does sometimes repeat the point a few too many times that Beethoven was a man and creator who could be both delicate and harsh in his personal and professional life, but he keeps audiences invested in the tight 90-minute show.
The star’s versatile piano playing is masterful, and he can shift seamlessly from being a soothing musician to violently-played performances in compositions such as the “Ode to Joy” opening of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, his “Moonlight Sonata in C Sharp” the sonata, “Pathetique” and, of course, “Fur Elise.”
Zwick’s direction, through the music and dialogue, feels surprisingly immersive for a one-man show and he uses the work from the design team to incorporate plenty of visual touches around the entire stage.
Felder’s set creates a moody tone with his depiction of Beethoven’s gravesite, and Christopher Ash’s lighting and projections are beautifully timed to highlight specific major moments.
Additional background music is provided by Erik Carstensen, and it blends well into crucial parts of the story.
As a writer, Felder brings a reoccurring and poignant theme, the sadness of solitude, so evident in his previous shows like George Gershwin Alone, Irving Berlin and Our Great Tchaikovsky. While Beethoven can be brutally harsh to others, we get the impression that this is because of his inability to connect with people outside of his music.
Felder’s decision to present Beethoven’s life from an outsider’s perspective does result in an emotional evening. The tale could have become too depressing if every scene were told from the composer’s perspective, particularly as he became significantly closed off to others following the loss of his hearing. As there are still plenty of moments where Felder gets to play Beethoven, theatregoers get to understand both his positive and negative qualities as a person.
Felder’s winning streak of events at the Lyceum Theatre at Horton Plaza continues with Beethoven. His warts-and-all-look at a timeless classical musician is a mixture of strong storytelling and unforgettable music.