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CPH's Beethoven and Beck's Fiddler

Thanks to the Cleveland Play House, our fair city has had the opportunity to experience Hershey Felder's automaton-like reanimations of George Gershwin, Frédéric Chopin and now a special pal of Ludwig van Beethoven. Each of these impersonations is worthy of a place in Disney's Hall of Presidents.

Beethoven, As I Knew Him offers up soporific nostalgia to those who came of age with "edifying" pageants concerning great figures of history. Whether presented on the silver screen, on TV or in civic centers by thespian librarians, they smell of lofty intentions combined with formaldehyde.

Felder's creation, set in 1870, a century after Beethoven's birth, centers on Gerhard von Breuning, the master's last living acquaintance. Felder plays Von Breuning as if coached by Disney cartoon character Ludwig von Drake. It's a performance of strange guttural sounds and wild gesticulating. As in all pageants, it reduces its subject to outrageously hyperbolic pronouncements about loneliness and the torment of genius.

Von Breuning was the 10-year-old son of Beethoven's lifelong friend, Stephan. In the Felder reminiscence, the alienated composer befriends the boy and makes him privy to the creation of his final masterpieces. This gives Felder plenty of chances for such tearful statements as "He could not hear, but he could hear infinity."

The play functions more as a musical lecture than anything approaching drama. Aside from giving Felder a field day wreaking havoc on the German language, with accents ranging from Yiddish theater to faux Otto Preminger, the evening provides the pianist with a forum to perform favorite Beethoven pieces he likely wouldn't be invited to play under more distinguished concert-hall circumstances. 

An example of the show's unfortunate dramaturgy is the last-minute revelation that fragments from Beethoven's skull reside at San Jose State University. Instead of giving us a wonderful tale of the ghost of Beethoven reclaiming his bones, we get a vapid epic about the wrong stiff. 

Felder has spent enough years using his unique talents on composers. Recently perusing photos of the embalmed Stalin, it occurred to us that his inimitable brand of emoting would lend itself to cryogenic rulers, dictators and mouse moguls. One tingles at the thought of Felder's preserved King Tut and frozen Walt Disney. But then, what would he do without a keyboard?

           

A HALF-CENTURY ago, a fierce Broadway prophet named Jerome Robbins bestowed three sacred musicals upon the earth: West Side Story, Gypsy and Fiddler on the Roof. The shows were so perfectly conceived and constructed that any significant tampering could lead to sacrilege.

Beck Center has been wise not to perpetrate any blasphemies with its season-opening production of Fiddler. Director Paul Gurgol and choreographer Lisa Lock have faithfully preserved the original's warmth and humanity.

No signs of rigor mortis here, just lovely little touches and emotional honesty that keep the work's heart beating. As Teyve and Golde, George Roth and Adina Bloom — like the production — have gone for truth rather than shtick.

arts@clevescene.com

More by Keith A. Joseph

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