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Theater review: Playgoers richly rewarded by mighty performances in '33 Variations'

Published: Monday, Nov. 11 2013 6:22 p.m. MST

Ron Frederickson stars as Ludwig von Beethoven and Anne Cullimore Decker as Katherine Brandt in Silver Summit Theatre's production of "33 Variations."

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“33 Variations,” Silver Summit Theatre Company, the Leonardo at Library Square, through Nov. 17, $22-$25, silversummittheatre.org or 801-541-7376

In 1819, Austrian music publisher Anton Diabelli wrote a pedestrian waltz, which sparked Beethoven to compose multiple extraordinary piano variations. In “33 Variations,” playwright Moisés Kaufman elegantly waltzes between the past and the present, with a compelling exploration of compassion and responsibility, friendship and love.

Silver Summit Theatre Company’s handsome production of “33 Variations” is enriched by mighty performances.

Anne Cullimore Decker plays Katherine Brandt, a contemporary musicologist unraveling Beethoven’s four years in the questionable endeavor, with Ron Frederickson as Beethoven, “a genius obsessed with mediocrity.” They are driven to complete their works while debilitated: Brandt is inflicted with Lou Gehrig’s disease and Beethoven has bouts of severe illness and eventually goes deaf.

As the two central characters, Decker and Frederickson are firestorms, illuminating the roles with passion and extraordinarily commanding skills. Decker is an insightful and dedicated scholar, a professor whose classes you would never miss, and beleaguered by her final days and her overlooked daughter. Frederickson’s Beethoven taunts and aggravates with a wry smile. The two performances merit enthusiastic support of this production, and playgoers are richly rewarded by “33 Variations” for the actors’ contributions alone.

The play is structured as a series of short overlapping, simultaneous and independent scenes that consider relationships with Brandt’s family and research assistant and Beethoven’s colleagues. Jesse Peery directs the production with a confident hand, prompting top-notch performances.

Allen Smith is the composer’s dutiful assistant, or as his calling card describes him, “Friend of Beethoven.” The untalented, pompous music publisher is Aaron Buckner. They are both reliant on and exasperated by Beethoven, and Smith and Buckner impressively play the roles.

More compelling are Brandt’s relationships. Michele Rideout is her valiant daughter, Clara; Kit Anderton is Mike Clark, the comic, supportive new boyfriend in Clara’s life; and Betsy West is Brandt’s librarian/companion, Gertrude Ladenberger. Each at first appears as throwaway characters, but as the drama progresses, their importance grows and the audience warms to their portrayals.

A compelling aspect incorporated into “33 Variations” is an onstage pianist performing sections of the variations, and the accomplished Anne Puzey has brightly revealed skills. The playwright had the notion to include the musician as an accompanist, performer and actors’ collaborator. Yet if the music were more deeply integrated into the story, the notion would be more satisfying and innovative. Instead, as my companion remarked, the music was employed as a musical scene-changer.

What initially is a simple set quickly is enlivened with clever, illustrative and impactful animated projections. The strengths of Mikal Troy Klee’s designs and Gamyr Worf’s lighting are elements to the production’s success.

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