Los Angeles Times

Theater Review: Beethoven reborn at Playhouse

The pantheon of musical geniuses certainly includes George Gershwin, Frederic Chopin and Ludwig von Beethoven. It's about time they dusted off a niche reserved for Hershey Felder. Felder brings all three composers to life in his fascinating repertoire, which has been concen- trated this season on the Laguna Play- house where his third presentation, "Beethoven as I Knew Him," is winding up its abbreviated two-weekend engagement. A bit darker than the preceding two, and somewhat less accessible, "Beethoven" still captivates even the non-musical playgoer, thanks to Felder's immense interpretive talent.

Under the meticulous direction of Joel Zwick, Felder draws his audience back to the time of, arguably, the world's greatest composer — first presented as a shuffling bum on the streets of Vienna.

"Beethoven as I Knew Him" is a two-character memoir, with Felder assuming both roles. The composer only drops by occasionally; the primary figure is Gerhard von Breuning, a teenage lad with an up-close- and-personal view of Beethoven's final years.

Both are masters of the piano, playing such compositions as "Moonlight Sonata" and Pathetique Sonata" with concert pianist flair. Students of the piano will derive much more, of course, from these segments, but we tin ears also relished the melodies.

From Breuning's account — offered in 1870 on the 100th anniversary of Beethoven's birth — we learn that young Ludwig endured a miserable childhood, regularly beaten by a cruel father. Those beatings most likely contributed to the composer's deafness while in his 30s.

We also learn that Beethoven, as a teenager, studied under Mozart, and later under Haydn. These two formidable talents helped forge a musician whose work has eclipsed both to become, in Felder's words, "the greatest composer ever to have lived."

Felder adopts a heavy, occasionally incomprehensible Germanic accent for his dramatic account, and this third element of his composers' trilogy is more stark and brooding than his portrayals of Gershwin and Chopin.

The elements of Beethoven's early and late periods of life certainly are not pretty and Felder, as Breuning, presents them with searing dramatic power.

Standing ovations have greeted Felder's three one-man shows, which undoubtedly convinced the playhouse to schedule a fourth next season. This one, titled "Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein," will be on the playhouse stage from Jan. 5 to Feb. 6.

Ruder show comingComedienne Rita Rudner will hold forth at the Laguna Playhouse next weekend in a two-day engagement which represents both a hiatus from her hit show at Harrah's on the Las Vegas Strip and a homecoming of sorts for the part-time Monarch Bay resident. "An Evening With Rita Rudner" will be presented at 8 p.m. May 29 and 30. Tickets are $45 and $55 and may be bought at (949) 497-2787 or www.lagunaplayhouse.com.

If You Go What: "Beethoven as I Knew Him"Where: Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon RoadWhen: Closing performances 8 tonight, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. SundayCost: $40 to $70Call: (949) 497-2787

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