Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

Hershey Felder, Beethoven
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Hershey Felder
Photo by Christopher Ash
As fingers skip lightly, hop in tandem, and chase other digits as if kids on a playground, we listen fully enchanted to an 11-year-old boy's composition, "Variation in C Minor." Surrounding the concert grand piano before us is a graveyard, large and threatening, dark and ominous. Bricks are stacked; tombstones, tilted; and shovels, stuck in mounds. This contrast of the light and the dark is to be the back-and-forth of the entire evening as our narrator relates the life story of one of the world's most celebrated composers, Ludwig van Beethoven. The musical pieces, many of which we all know well, are as full of stories behind their making as their treble and bass staffs are packed with celebrated notes, sharps and flats. We will find that many of those stories have a side dark, angry, and disillusioned that reflects the troubled soul of the beloved composer himself and contrast greatly to the actual music's glory and beauty.

TheatreWorks Silicon Valley brings back the man who broke box office records the previous year as Irving Berlin. Hershey Felder, Beethoven bursts onto the Mountain View Performing Arts Center stage as a full, classical concert, played magnificently by the sole performer as pianist and punctuated by a narrated story that is populated by both Beethoven and the major players of his life who influenced his music. Number after number spring forth from the performing aficionado's keyboard, most of which audience members can quickly identify if not by name, certainly by familiar phrases full of musical drama and by well-known runs melodic and mesmerizing.

Hershey Felder, Beethoven, as now staged at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, is an updated rendition of Felder's Beethoven as I Knew Him, premiering at Chicago's Broadway Playhouse in 2009. As he has now done in over 4500 performances during the past twenty years with the likes of not only Irving Berlin but also George Gershwin, Frederic Chopin, Leonard Bernstein, and Franz Liszt, Hershey Felder illuminates Ludwig van Beethoven's life, personality and music in a manner that is captivating, magical, and actually quite astounding. His combined musical, storytelling, and acting capabilities are nothing short of phenomenally remarkable. Nothing could be a bigger complement to Mr. Felder's abilities than the absolute silence of a packed audience coming to a stage musical who are now hypnotized by this man playing pieces one would normally—while perhaps wearing a tuxedo or evening gown—hear in a great symphony hall.

In a soft voice full of admiration but willing to reveal truths not always so nice, Dr. Gerhard von Breuning in 1863 Vienna tells of his association as a boy with the great Beethoven—at that time a man living in self-made squalor, often lashing out at any passerby with vitriolic anger. Yet Gerhard became a friend of that sometimes bitter Beethoven, as the great man of music taught the boy piano. The young Gerhard saw first-hand the effects of the composer's early beginnings, such as Ludwig being locked for days in the basement by a demon-like father. We hear how the boy got to know the famed man who in his twenties had begun losing his hearing—years before he composed while deaf most of his greatest symphonies and concertos, never ever to hear them when played by the great pianists or symphonies of his time.

As our narrator walks us through Beethoven's life, Mr. Felder becomes the voices and persona who had influence—both positive and negative—on this giant of classical music. We hear the nasally, squeaky voice of Mozart, a huge influence on Beethoven, and almost float into the heavens as a live piano, a symphonic and choral recording, and the tenor voice of Mr. Felder all blend into a beautiful "Requiem" (Mozart's final piece) that completely surrounds all of us in the audience. We meet the punishing father, brother Johann, and a nephew, among others—all part of Hershey Felder's personality and voice transformations and all linked by a return to the keyboard for more of the music emulating from the life stories being told. That his 5th Symphony might have been inspired by a wood-pecking, yellow-hammered bird ("ta-ta-ta-dum") is just one of many background tidbits we learn as the accompanying concert continues.

The music Mr. Felder plays on the piano as well, as that heard through glorious recordings, turn the Mountain View Performing Arts Center into a great symphonic hall, thanks to the sound design of Erik Carstensen. The scenes of the composer's life and illustrations of his music are illustrated in sweeping projections by Christopher Ash across a back curtained wall that hugs the graveyard set designed by Mr. Felder himself. Mr. Ash's lighting design sharpens and pinpoints attention often in ways as awakening and dramatic as the musical chords pounding from the piano itself. All is directed by Joel Zwick with an eye to singling out the unique personalities we meet along the way and allowing their idiosyncrasies to shine while keeping the doctor/narrator's steady pace as a strong thread to bind the story and music of Beethoven into an integrated piece.

From a book standpoint, there is a curious matter of Beethoven's bones that bookends the storytelling. I found its insertion extraneous, a bit confusing and unnecessary. From bones being examined in 1863 after the Great One's death in 1827, the narrator asks in mysterious tones during his up front presentation, "What exactly happened to him [Beethoven] and why?" What we are looking for actually never becomes quite clear (in my mind at least). When returned as a discussion point at the end, the focus on the bones of Beethoven seems again strange and out of place.

However, the flow and power of the story and the music that we have heard in between the discussions about bones is all the evening actually needs to be the winner of a show that it is. Hershey Felder, Beethoven is an evening with the talent extraordinaire, Mr. Felder, that is not to be missed as TheatreWorks Silicon Valley presents this area premiere.

Hershey Felder, Beethoven continues through July 9, 2017, at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View. Tickets are available online at or by calling 650-463-1960, Monday - Friday 11 a.m. - 6 p.m. and Saturday - Sunday, Noon - 6 p.m.