Geffen Playhouse, Westwood (Through Oct. 12).
In adding the final jewel to his trilogy of one-man shows about famous composers (the first two being Chopin and Gershwin), Hershey Felder wields a vivid imagination, a pretty good piano technique (for an actor) and a courageous willingness to venture beyond the facts.
Playing before a gala crowd celebrating the opening of the Geffen's 2008-09 season, Felder uses Beethoven's music and a partly first-person account of his life in an ambitious attempt to explore the experiential and emotional universe of the man who was one of classical music's most intense, self-absorbed geniuses.
Felder's idea to use the memoirs of Gerhard von Breuning is a clever one. Von Breuning's father was one of Beethoven's closest friends, and von Breuning as a teen was close to Beethoven during the difficult last period of his life when the composer's drinking and other health problems caught up with him.
Felder pretty much though not exclusively focuses on those last years, telling the story with von Breuning's or, to a lesser extent, Beethoven's words. It is all illustrated by Felder's illuminating performances at the piano of Beethoven's music, with the occasional help of recordings when a string quartet or symphony is required.
Addressing the audience in a German accent that just avoids being a synthesis of Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner and Howard Morris from the old Show of Shows, Felder is at his most communicative and relaxed at the end, when he drops his accent altogether.
Whether he is telling anecdotes from Beethoven's life or allowing the great man to speak directly to the audience, Felder consistently stresses the magnificence and what he considers the universal appeal of the composer's artistic and spiritual accomplishments in the moving context of his worsening hearing problems.
Felder's musical analysis is conventional (the Fifth Symphony as fate knocking on the door) or tendentious ("As Beethoven's hearing failed, he began to listen to the mystical world beyond"). Felder makes his musical points most effectively when he sits down at the keyboard, where he plays with a sturdy sense of poetry and a technique that betrays him only in faster passages.
Felder also uses technology to good effect to add reverberation to the sound at key dramatic moments or to use recordings (including the orchestral part only of the "Emperor" piano concerto) to accompany his own playing and occasionally painful if earnest crooning.
There is one problem with Felder's approach, however. Von Breuning published his memoirs 50 years after Beethoven's death and relied on one source in particular that, though it provides excellent anecdotal material, has been almost entirely discredited by mainstream scholars. It might make the play more entertaining, particularly in the stories about Beethoven's relationships with his family, but Felder is not the first artist to be compromised by underestimating the theatrical value of truth.
Cast: Gerhard von Breuning/Ludwig van Beethoven: Hershey Felder. Text: Hershey Felder. Director: Joel Zwick. Scenic designer/Graphic artist: Francois-Pierre Couture; Costume designer: Theatr' Hall, Paris; Hair design: Christine Chomicki, Any D'Avray, Paris; Lighting design: Richard Norwood; Projection design: Andrew Wilder and Christopher Ash; Sound design: Erik Carstenen.