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reviewed by Larry Adams

In 1823 the well-known music composer and publisher Anton Diabelli published a set of 33 “variations” on a waltz, written between 1819 and 1823 by famed composer Ludwig van Beethoven. Widely regarded as one of the greatest of all piano works, its origins are clouded in mystery. Diabelli had asked a number of composers each to produce only a single variation of his simple waltz, to be compiled and used in a charity project; why did Beethoven, one of the most famous and sought-after composers of his time, subsequently devote years to the effort, seemingly transforming what should have been at most a minor favor into a grand obsession? It is this question that drives Dr. Katherine Brandt to her own obsession, as she races a deadly and debilitating disease to find answers both professional and personal in Moises Kaufman’s 2009 play.

Mainstreet Productions’ 33 Variations is an incredibly complex theatrical endeavor and may in fact be the greatest “team effort” production I have ever had the pleasure to attend. Creating a series of short scenes set in two different centuries (and sometimes in both simultaneously), the acting, visual effects, set design, music- and even scene changes and props- are all not merely integral but interwoven in the play, necessitating an unparalleled degree of cooperation, coordination and trust between the participants to run seamlessly and smoothly- and seamlessly and smoothly it did indeed run during the opening night performance this past Friday. The various elements of the production are each so essential to the whole that it is difficult to know where to start in a review; however, as a sometimes thespian myself, I’ll, of course, start with the actors. You behind-the-scenes folks are probably used to that anyway.

Leading this exceptional cast is Monica Reinking as Dr. Brandt, a musicologist battling the slow, inexorable progression of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, a rare neurologic disorder otherwise known as ALS or “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.” (As a side note, Main Street Productions has partnered with the ALS Association Indiana Chapter for this production, donating to the charity $2.00 for every ticket sold.) Although Ms. Reinking’s take on the assertive Dr. Brandt is initially perhaps a bit too acerbic to generate the necessary level of audience sympathy, her subsequent portrayal of the emotional and physical toll of the disease interacting with the professional and personal struggles of her life is simultaneously marvelous and painful to behold. In what must be an exhausting role, Ms. Reinking shines as the dramatic linchpin of the story.

Doug Stanton, last seen in Westfield Playhouse’s 2017 comedy “Don’t Hug Me, We’re Married,” gets to show his dramatic chops as Beethoven, often oblivious to the practicalities of the real world as his own progressive malady, deafness, threatens to take away the world of his music. Stanton is a commanding presence during each of his scenes, even when not saying a word during a very creative staging of a conversation to which history was left only one side.

A true standout in the production is Katelin Reeves as Clara, Dr. Brandt’s semi-estranged daughter. Ms. Reeves’ biography boasts a background steeped in theatrical training, and it shows; her natural and seemingly effortless handling of the complexities of the mother-daughter relationship as well as a blossoming romance lend credibility to dialogue that at times, quite frankly, threatens to strain it.

Steve Jerk, whom I have somehow managed to miss in all his previous stage efforts, is a true delight as Anton Diabeilli. I wish I could come up with a grand reason or erudite phrase to back up that assessment, but I have to admit I’m hard pressed to pin down in words just exactly why I enjoyed his performance so much. Alas, I’m a doctor, not a theater critic- really- so I’m not sure I can sum it up much better than “he acted real good.” Don’t take my word for it- please- just don’t miss him in this show.

Bridging the interactions between Beethoven and Diabelli is Anton Schindler, played with aplomb in both comedic and dramatic moments by Dave Hoffman. I particularly enjoyed his scenes with Jerk; the two have shared a stage before in Carmel Community Players’ “The Odd Couple,” and the camaraderie and trust in each other are evident in “33 Variations” as well.

Rounding out the cast are Susan Hill as Dr. Ladenburger, Brandt’s colleague, and Kelly Keller as Mike Clark, Brandt’s nurse and Clara’s love interest. Ms. Hill nails the gradual thawing of her character’s relationship with Dr. Brandt, giving the audience some of the most tender and amusing moments of the show. Mr. Keller does a fine job with a role that seems somewhat unnecessary and tacked on by the playwright. In a show that undoubtedly already strains the attention span of modern day audiences, the love story does little to advance the main narrative and is unfortunately encumbered by some of the most cringe-worthy romantic dialogue since Anakin met Padme. A scene in which the two potential lovebirds share a first date, however, is both sweet and hilarious, and Keller runs with it, much to the enjoyment of all in the audience.

A unique feature of 33 Variations is the presence of a pianist on stage at all times, unseen by the characters, but periodically providing musical accompaniment to the scenes through the use of the titular variations. Mainstreet Productions is absolutely blessed to have secured Kyle Thomas for this critical role, an experienced performer who can perhaps relate to Beethoven better than most, as Kyle himself is “profoundly deaf,” according to his bio. His efforts to overcome this challenge are well spent; not only does the music add to the overall effect of the show, but his talent at the keyboard is such that, as my wife Anita commented afterwards, “I could listen to him forever.”

The crew list in the program for 33 Variations is extensive, and yet I find it hard to imagine how so much was accomplished by so few, and I was singularly impressed with the synergies each department added to the others. John Sampson’s set, for example, is appropriately simple and evocative, but is raised to new heights with lighting and visual effects that are surprisingly sophisticated for a small community theater. Accents- the bane of many a performer’s existence- abound in this production, and, although dropped a bit on occasion, show clear evidence of work with a “Dialect Coach,” making them authentic yet clear to the audience. Costuming, particularly for the 19th Century characters, had to be a nightmare, but appears genuine and is used to great effect. Each of these “departments” deserves a round of applause as great as the actors receive.

A particular word of praise for the stage manager and backstage crew. The scene changes in “33 Variations” are relentless and, if not handled swiftly and smoothly, would absolutely kill this show. The fact that they are barely noticeable is a testament to the crew’s skill, preparation and commitment. And how they managed to store all the props, costumes (and actors!) behind the set is a magic trick worthy of David Copperfield.

There is only one reason that all the pieces of a show this complex can fit together so precisely, and that is the presence of a strong director. Jan Jamison, who after last year’s Encore Awards ceremony has more hardware than a Home Depot, has built a reputation now as a director not afraid to take a chance with challenging and often underperformed material. As both an actor and an audience member, I appreciate this inclination.

In her Director’s Notes, Ms. Jamison describes this play as “masterful.” I would not go that far. Though it often soars, Kaufman’s dialogue is at times clunky and his sentiment heavy handed and schmaltzy. The cast, crew and director of this production rise above these shortcomings, however, making Westfield Playhouse’s 33 Variations a theatrical experience not to be missed.

33 Variations continues at Mainstreet Productions’ Westfield Playhouse through Febraury 18th. Find out more information about dates and tickets at http://www.westfieldplayhouse.org or by calling 317.402.3341.

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