Over the past ten years, pianist/actor Hershey Felder has created an entirely new genre, the “Hershey Felder Musical Bio,” beginning with the multiple award-winning George Gershwin Alone and followed by the equally acclaimed Monsieur Chopin. Now, the trilogy is completed with Beethoven, As I Knew Him.

Like Felder’s previous smash hits, Beethoven, As I Knew Him offers audiences the opportunity to meet “the man behind the music” and experience a tour de force Felder performance, which includes both Disney Concert Hall-ready piano solos and superb acting by that rare performer capable of doing both simultaneously.

In his two earlier Musical Bios, Felder transformed himself into the artist himself. Here, though, it is not Beethoven that Felder becomes but rather the far lesser known Dr. Gerhard Von Breuning, son of Beethoven’s lifelong friend, Stephan von Breuning, who first met Beethoven as a child.  Felder has based his text for Beethoven, As I Knew Him on “Aus dem Schwarzspanierhaus” (From the Black Spaniard House), an account of Beethoven’s last years.

The reason for Felder’s choice of protagonist is clear.  Beethoven’s hearing loss (he was totally deaf the last dozen years of his life) would have made having Beethoven himself tell his story to a live audience unlikely.  For this reason, Beethoven, As I Knew Him is somewhat less compelling that Parts 1 and 2 of Felder’s trilogy (it’s not quite as interesting to spend time with the obscure Von Breuning as it is with Gershwin and Chopin themselves).  “Less compelling” is a relative term, to be sure, and Beethoven, As I Knew Him remains a fascinating and unique piece of theater, highlighted by Felder’s piano artistry.

Von Breuning’s perspective is an interesting one, since his first glimpse of Beethoven was as a child, and the Beethoven whom young Gerhard’s father spoke to on the street that day appeared to be nothing more than a vagrant.  (When Von Breuning was 10 years old, Beethoven had been deaf for nearly ten years and had fallen onto hard times.)

Felder’s Musical Bio gives us all the relevant information about Beethoven’s life, his strained relationship with his two surviving younger brothers, his battle for custody of his nephew Karl, and of course the tragic loss of his hearing.

Still, it is the music which speaks more than words can possibly say, and Felder performs exquisitely excerpts from the 9th Symphony’s “Ode to Joy,” the “Requiem,” his “Moonlight” and “Pathetique” sonatas, Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto, and “Für Elise,” among others, all the while commenting on the music he is playing..

Thursday audiences were also treated to what Felder aficionados have come to enjoy almost as much as his shows themselves, a fascinating post-performance Q & A, this time with Felder as himself.  (In his previous Musical Bios, he remained onstage as Gershwin and as Chopin.)  Responding to a question about what made Beethoven such a great composer, Felder demonstrated at the keyboard how the instantly recognizable four opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony revolutionized the music of the time, and how the composer repeated them throughout the symphony in different emotional contexts.

Felder has frequently stated that a large part of the artistic success of his Musical Bios are the invaluable contributions of director Joel Zwick, evident once again here. Almost as important is the work of Felder’s design team, headed by scenic designer/graphic artist François-Pierre Couture.  Here, Couture’s dark black set places Felder’s grand piano in front of a proscenium-filling open book onto which Andrew Wilder and Christopher Ash’s designs are projected, illustrating the people and places that influenced Beethoven’s life.  Richard Norwood deserves highest marks for his exquisite lighting design, as does Erik Carstensen for his sound design and Theatr’ Hall, Paris for Felder’s costuming.

One might quibble that Felder’s twin victories at last year’s Ovation Awards, for Best Musical and Best Lead Actor in a Musical, prevented “authentic” musicals and musical theater performers from receiving the awards, and that a special category should have been created for Felder.  What cannot be argued is that a Hershey Felder Musical Bio is anything less than great theater. 

Like George Gershwin Alone and Monsieur  Chopin, Beethoven, As I Knew Him is certain to win Felder critical acclaim and popular success.  You don’t have to be a classical music fan to fall under Felder’s spell. It can happen to anyone. It happened to me once again.

Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Avenue, Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
August 28, 2008
                                               Photos: Michael Lamont

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