THEATRE_33Variations-10400025The 5 & Dime Theatre Company in partnership with the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens opened Moisés Kaufman‘s “33 Variations” on July 18th, 2014 for a limited run through July 27th. The play debuted on Broadway in 2009 and was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play and Best Performance by a leading actress (Jane Fonda).This play with a strange title is based on true events in musical history. It begins in Vienna in 1819 with the story of music publisher Anton Diabelli (brilliantly played by Jeffrey Wells, who returns to the stage after too long an absence). Diabelli, who was also a part-time composer, completes a short waltz and invites the cadre of Viennese composers to compose and submit a variation, a personal arrangement of the waltz, for inclusion in a compilation that he will publish.Ludwig Van Beethoven, acknowledged as a musical genius for his skills as a pianist and composer, agrees to submit a variation, and becomes so consumed with the task that he creates not one but many variations, 33 in all, beginning with a military march and ending with a minuet. Jason Woods gives a masterful performance as the sickly but volatile Beethoven. Mr. Woods appears to have an intuitive talent for the establishment and development of character, as previously seen in his performance in “A Christmas Carol,” his marvelous one-man show in which he portrays 26 characters.

The 80 ducats (about $10,000) Beethoven would earn was important, especially to Anton Schindler, his associate and secretary, a constant companion who also served as his business manager. Joshua Taylor, one of the founding members of 5 & Dime, gives a keen performance, with assured hauteur and vocal dynamism.

That is the somewhat factual portion of the play. We say ‘somewhat’ factual as the many biographies of Beethoven contain inconsistencies.

THEATRE_33Variations-10499332Mr. Kaufman’s leading lady is a fictional character: Dr. Katherine Brandt, a musicologist who has written a book about Mozart and who now has a grant to study and publish an academic explanation of Beethoven’s obsession with Diabelli’s waltz. Unfortunately, she has recently been diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), a progressive and physically debilitating disorder, which is also known as Lou Gehrig‘s disease. Sinda Nichols, a Fernandina Beach based actress who has performed her one-woman show, “The Belle of Amherst,” in North Florida and throughout the USA, as well as in Ireland, plays this role with a special poignancy that leaves the audience with no doubt about her determination to complete the project in the limited time left to her.

A sub-plot concerns Dr. Brandt’s relationship with her daughter Clara, as the two struggle to bridge the gaps that separate them. Clara is something of a free spirit; currently a costume designer, she wants to branch out into set design. She has gone through several professions and an equal number of boyfriends; Katherine sees her as undisciplined and perhaps mediocre. Kristen Walsh gives a spirited and involved performance as she tries to overcome her mother’s coldness and reluctance to accept her support.

Clara finds her latest love interest in Mike Clark, a nurse she meets at the hospital where her mother is being treated. Franklin Ritch, who is making his theatre debut in this area, portrays the role with animation, and speaks as much with his eyes and facial expressions as he does with his words. The result is a very off-beat character, one you will like.

THEATRE_33Variations-10497182Even though her health is failing, Katherine travels to Bonn, Germany to study at a library that maintains Beethoven’s archives. Here, she meets Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger, an archivist who is totally devoted to Beethoven and the “gatekeeper” who provides access to the material. With the same interests, she and Katherine soon become fast friends. Clara and Mike join her in Germany where they continue to grow closer. Caroline Lee, an award-winning actress, is a strong and versatile Dr. Ladenburger, and provides a lot of the humor in this play.

This is not a musical but rather a play with music, piano music by Laura Peden, who at various times plays portions of the Diabelli Variations. This music is lively and even toe tapping at times, and you do not need to be a classical music fan to enjoy it. Ms. Peden is a well-known musical director who has worked with all our local venues over the years.

This two-act play is done in short scenes that take place in various settings both here and abroad. The entire cast is on stage on one occasion, with, yes, Beethoven and Brandt together. As the play unfolds, you will notice the similarities in their lives as both are disabled and both consumed with their personal passions.

Evan Gould is the “33 Variations” Production Manager with Sherry Walsh as Stage Manager

THEATRE_33Variations-10557157Lee Hamby is an extraordinary director, at home with an unusually wide range of theatrical styles. He is mostly known for his fabulous musicals, for which he often designs the costumes and does the chorography. He also designs sets, and has designed an elegantly minimalistic one for the current production, with a background covered with sheet music, and simple furnishings. Hamby’s casting and direction has made “33 Variations” a powerful and provocative theatrical experience.

We have seen several plays at the Cummer and hope in the future they bring in additional ones, perhaps one-person shows that use simple sets and have low production costs. This space, which was filled with comfortable seats on risers, brings us close enough to the characters to feel each twinge of their collective pains.

The Cafe, the restaurant on the premises of the Cummer, can turn the evening into a dinner theatre experience if you so desire. Their food offerings are truly gourmet, and for this occasion, they have a fixed price menu. We chose flatbread caprese as an appetizer, which was delicious. The Chimmichurri Flank Steak was absolutely some of best we have ever had anywhere. The Asian Chop-Chop salad topped by chicken as an entree, was huge and featured a delightful slightly spicy peanut-coconut dressing. NOTE: The cafe is open for lunch and snacks daily except for Mondays, when the Museum is closed, and also offers a fabulous tapas menu beginning at 5 pm on Tuesdays. You can choose to dine inside or out on the adjacent patio. If questions, the phone number for the cafe is 904-899-6022.

Reservations are recommended. For tickets, with or without dinner, visit the5&dime.org. It’s $37 for Dining & Show or $15 for Show Only if purchased 24 hours in advance; add an additional $5 if purchased the day of the show.


About Dick Kerekes & Leisla Sansom

The Dual Critics of EU Jacksonville have been reviewing plays together for the past nine years. Dick Kerekes has been a critic since 1980, starting with The First Coast Entertainer and continuing as the paper morphed into EU Jacksonville. Leisla Sansom wrote reviews from time to time in the early 80s, but was otherwise occupied in the business world. As a writing team, they have attended almost thirty Humana Festivals of New America Plays at Actors Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky, and many of the annual conferences sponsored by the American Theatre Critics Association, which are held in cities throughout the country. They have reviewed plays in Cincinnati, Chicago, Miami, Sarasota, Minneapolis, Orlando, New York, Philadelphia, Sarasota, San Francisco, Shepherdstown, and The Eugene O’Neill Center in Waterford, Massachusetts. They currently review about one hundred plays annually in the North Florida area theaters, which include community, college, university, and professional productions.