Review: “Beethoven, as I Knew Him”

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Ludwig van Beethoven -- genius, madman, cosmic musical prophet. In the one-man show “Beethoven, as I Knew Him,” writer-actor Hershey Felder finds a whole new angle on the composer: Vegas camp superstar.

Not that we ever see Beethoven wearing a glittery cape, though he does wrap himself in a sequined blanket at one point. Instead, this narrated account of his life shamelessly amps up the sentimentality, purple clichés and big weepy tragedy. It’s as if Celine Dion had jumped in a time machine and taken up residence in the German composer’s body.

“Beethoven, as I Knew Him,” at the Geffen Playhouse through Sept. 28, represents the final chapter in Felder’s trilogy of composer biographies. (He previously tackled Chopin and Gershwin.) Filled with unintentional hilarity, this over-the-top fantasia is a misshapen and incoherent free-association that’s in dire need of dramatic tuning.

The most jarring note comes from Felder’s decision to frame the story through the eyes of Beethoven’s friend Dr. Gerhard von Breuning, who recounts the composer’s life through anecdotes and a greatest-hits list of compositions (including the “Moonlight” Sonata, “Für Elise” and the “Ode to Joy”) played on a grand piano.

At times, Felder morphs without warning into Beethoven himself, though it’s never entirely clear if we’re watching the composer or Von Breuning’s conception of him. In any case, these scenes provide the evening’s hammiest moments as the actor tears into Beethoven’s life like a lunatic on furlough from the asylum.

In one scene, Beethoven mourns the passing of his idol, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, by playing the Requiem on the piano and singing the part of the chorus in a screeching falsetto. It’s a pure camp moment that’s transfixing in its Liberace-esque audacity and embarrassing in its total sincerity.

If only the play contained more such wacky moments. Mostly, “Beethoven, as I Knew Him” meanders through the composer’s life without much purpose or direction.

Simply on the level of biography, the show possesses as much depth as a Wikipedia article. Entire events and compositions are omitted or alluded to in passing. Of course, no biographical play could ever hope to cover every aspect of its subject’s life, but Felder’s script fails to locate a common thread that would impose order on his scattershot talking points.

As a pianist, Felder proves himself more than capable of portioning out Beethoven’s music into easily digestible, buffet-style serving sizes. But these musical interludes, beautiful though they are, disrupt the storytelling flow, creating pockets of dead narrative air when we should be moving forward. Perhaps scared that he might lose his audience, Felder frequently narrates as he tickles the ivories, giving the show the feeling of a lounge act.

Joel Zwick directs the production with a perceptible nod to its full camp potential. The black velvet set suggests a cross between a department store window and a high-class prostitute’s boudoir. At times, the show feels like it has more lighting cues than Cher at the Colosseum. And Felder’s German accent, apparently on loan from Siegfried & Roy, is so overdone that it becomes otherworldly.

By the time Beethoven loses his hearing, the play itself has become tone-deaf to all storytelling technique and finesse. The natural place for this show is, of course, the Strip. With shinier clothes, a bigger fright wig and a drink minimum, Felder could have an instant classic on his hands. In the meantime, we’ll have to make do with this rather tedious muddle.

“Beethoven, as I Knew Him,” Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles. See for show times. Ends Sept. 28. $40 to $115. (310) 208-5454. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.