Michael Ballam leads veteran cast in challenging ’33 Variations’

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

LOGAN – The current production of “33 Variations” by the Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre is definitely an acquired taste, but fine performances and imaginative stagecraft make sampling this drama palatable for the average theater-goer.

The fairly recent play by Moisés Kaufman is a complex, multi-layered study of the price of obsession in the ironically similar lives of two characters.

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

Michael Ballam delivers a masterful performance as Beethoven. The local impresario skillfully avoids both stereotype and caricature in his portrayal, making the driven composer warmly human despite his volatile moods.

UFOMT veteran Susan Hanson is similarly sympathetic as Katherine Brandt, a musicologist who reacts to a fatal disease diagnosis by single-mindedly pursuing her final scholarly project.

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

Despite the vast gulf of years between them, the playwright finally brings Beethoven and Brandt together in a touching deathbed meeting of the minds.

With eight characters on-stage, “33 Variations” is as close as the UFOMT comes this season to a full-scale theater production. But the size of this cast is less important than their talents, which are incomparable.

Festival opera favorites Vanessa Ballam and Stephan Espinosa play Clara, the increasingly isolated daughter of Dr. Brandt, and her tongue-tied beau Mike respectively. The on-stage chemistry between the real-life husband and wife team is palpable, providing a charming and amusing counterpoint to Kaufman’s otherwise deadly serious script.

Fresh from her triumph in the UFOMT production of “Souvenir,” Joy Hermalyn delivers another standout performance as Gertrude, a librarian in the Beethoven archive.

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

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

As always, the UFOMT production team provides top-notch support to the on-stage cast. 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 Theatre in downtown Logan on July 13, 17, 21 and 27. Matinee performances are slated for July 24 and 29.

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