Michael Ballam leads cast of veterans in ’33 Variations’ challenge – Cache Valley Daily

Opera music


A trio of superb performers lead an ensemble cast in the ongoing production of the Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theater drama “33 Variations”. They are (from left to right) Michael Ballam, Susan Hanson and Curt Olds.

LOGAN – The current production of “33 Variations” by the Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theater is certainly an acquired taste, but fine performances and imaginative staging make the sampling of this drama acceptable to the average viewer.

Moisés Kaufman’s fairly recent play is a complex and multi-level study of the price of obsession with the ironically similar lives of two characters.

One is the immortal Ludwig von Beethoven, who devoted the last years of his life to composing acclaimed variations on a minor waltz by Anton Diabelli. The other is a fictional classical music specialist who is dedicated to discovering Beethoven’s motivation for this effort to the exclusion of all relationships and even his health.

Michael Ballam delivers a masterful performance in the role of Beethoven. The local impresario skillfully avoids both stereotyping and caricature in his portrayal, making the composer passionate and heartily human despite his volatile moods.

UFOMT veteran Susan Hanson is just as sympathetic as Katherine Brandt, a musicologist who reacts to a diagnosis of a life-threatening illness by resolutely pursuing her latest college project.

Kaufman’s deeply articulated script clearly draws haunting parallels between these characters as they both race against time, with Beethoven battling deafness and Brandt trying to temporarily cheat death itself.

Despite the vast abyss of years that separate them, the playwright finally reunites Beethoven and Brandt in a touching encounter of spirits on the deathbed.

With eight characters on stage, “33 Variations” is as close as UFOMT this season comes close to a full-scale theatrical production. But the size of this cast matters less than their talents, which are second to none.

Festival opera favorites Vanessa Ballam and Stephan Espinosa play Clara, Dr Brandt’s increasingly isolated daughter, and her handsome Mike, respectively. The onstage chemistry between the actual husband and wife team is palpable, providing a charming and fun counterpoint to Kaufman’s otherwise deadly serious storyline.

Fresh out of her triumph in the UFOMT production of “Souvenir,” Joy Hermalyn delivers another remarkable performance as Gertrude, Librarian of the Beethoven Archives.

Curt Olds and the always watchable Lee Daily represent Beethoven’s assistant, Schindler and Diabelli respectively.

Finally, pianist Nicolas Giusti artfully recreates certain musical selections from the Variations Diabelli.

As always, the UFOMT production team provides top notch support to the actors on stage. But projection designers Jeff Sugg and Carl Whitaker deserve special mention for innovative lighting and special effects.

Evening performances of “33 Variations” will continue at the Utah Theater in downtown Logan on July 13, 17, 21 and 27. Morning performances are scheduled for July 24 and 29.