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Bev Cohn: Jane Fonda

Jane Fonda as Dr. Katherine Brandt in 33 Variations
The most elegant Jane Fonda as Dr. Katherine Brandt,a musicologist facing a
grave health challenge.

Miss Jane Fonda Graces the Ahmanson Stage in “33 Variations"
By Beverly Cohn
Photos by Craig Schwartz

here was something extra special about this particular opening night at the Ahmanson. The excitement was palpable as Hollywood stars, including the indomitable Cher, showed up to support one of America’s most accomplished actresses – Miss Jane Fonda. The outpouring was well rewarded, as Miss Fonda’s performance in “33 Variations,” beautifully written and directed by Moises Kaufman, was spellbinding and truly a visual and emotional treat.

Jane Fonda as Dr. Brandt with Zach Grenier as Beethoven in a scene from 33 Variations
A dying Dr. Brandt's obsession with Beethoven's (Zach Grenier) devotion to a particular waltz.

The most elegant, stunning 72-year-old Miss Fonda plays Dr. Katherine Brandt, a musicologist battling Lou Gehrig’s disease, a degenerative affliction that attacks the muscles. She is hell-bent on solving the question as to why Ludwig van Beethoven devoted years to developing variations to a mediocre waltz composed by Anton Diabelli.

The highly skilled Fonda discovered every possible nuance and subtlety of her most complex character, filling the stage with her finely honed theatrical presence. Her physical life is so well developed that you could swear the character is losing weight before your very eyes as her already thin frame begins to shrink as her brain ceases sending messages to her muscles. Her speech becomes labored, as though her tongue has swollen inside her mouth.

Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger (Susan Kellermann) assisting Dr. Brandt (Jane Fonda) in her research on Beethoven
Susan Kellerman as Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger, keeper of the Beethoven archives, assists Dr. Brandt (Jane Fonda) in her research of Beethoven's variations on the Diabelli waltz.

Greg Keller (as Mike Clark), Samantha Mathis (as Clara Brandt) and Susan Kellerman (as Dr. Landenburger) in a scene from 33 Variations
(L-R) Dr. Brandt's nurse Mike Clark, (Greg Keller) Clara Brandt, (Samantha Mathis) and Dr. Gertrude Landenburger (Susan Kellerman) meet to discuss Dr. Brandt's deteriorating condition.

In the waning days of her physical strength, despite her daughter Clara’s objections, delicately played by Samantha Mathis, Dr. Brandt heads to Bonn to research Beethoven’s papers where she encounters the appearingly stern Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger, well played by Susan Kellermann, who guards the precious archives with a vengeance. Katherine and Clara have a strained relationship that the worried daughter hopes to resolve before it’s too late.

In a subtle transition, the very Germanic Ladenburger becomes a wonderful friend to Katherine helping her in her quest for Beethoven’s decision. Katherine’s theory is that the master thought he could create a masterpiece from the most banal piece of music.

Dr. Brandt (Jane Fonda) and her daughter Clara (Samantha Mathis) trying to work on their relationship
The elusive Dr. Brandt with her daughter Clara who is trying to work on their relationship.

What makes the story particularly compelling is how playwright Kaufman moves the play back and forth between 1819-1823 and the present, drawing parallels between Beethoven’s obsessive devotion to finishing the variations on Diabelli’s mediocre piece of music and Katherine’s obsession to discovering the answer before she dies. He is losing his hearing while she is losing her body.

Zach Grenier (Beethoven) and Grant James Varjas (as Beethoven's assistant Anton Schindler) in a scene from the play
(L) Ludwig Van Beethoven (Zach Grenier) with his devoted assistant Anton Schindler (Grant James Varjas.)

Zach Grenier plays Beethoven with just the right amount of artistic gusto and temperament, while Grant James Varjas plays his unrelenting, caring, devoted assistant, Anton Schindler, who protects his ailing master from creditors and kings alike.

Greg Keller (as Mike Clark) and Samantha Mathis (as Clara Brandt) in a tender scene from 33 Variations
Dr. Brandt's nurse Mike falls in love with her daughter Clara.

Zach Grenier as Ludwig Van Beethoven
Ludwig Van Beethoven (Zach Grenier) creating music
he hears in his head.

Rounding out this most talented ensemble is Greg Keller’s Mike Clark, Katherine’s nurse who falls in love with Clara. The Clark character infuses the play with just the right amount of comic relief that the adorable Keller delivers with impeccable timing.

The technical components are top-notch beginning with the Scenic Design by Derek McLane, the centerpiece of which are movable giant racks of sheet music which accommodate the scene changes, magnificently adorned by David Lander’s Lighting Design, lavishing the stage with brilliant colors. Especially eye-popping is the golden hue when we first see the precious archives letting us know there really is gold buried in the hundreds of volumes of Beethoven’s notes.

Don Amendolia (as Anton Diabelli) and Grant James Varjas (as Anton Schindler) in a scene from 33 Variations
As Anton Schindler looks on, Anton Diabelli (Don Amendolia) is pleased with one of Beethoven's variations on his waltz.

Projection Design by Jeff Sugg lets us experience Beethoven’s notes by projecting the sheet music on a rear screen as it is being read by Dr. Brandt or being written by the master.

33 Variations pianist and musical director Diane Walsh performing
Pianist/Musical Director Diane Walsh's exquisite playing brings the beauty of Beethoven's music to life.

Pianist and Musical Director Diane Walsh, her grand piano sitting off to stage right, plays the corresponding music throughout the evening adding to the enchantment with her virtuosity.

Director Kaufman keeps the action moving at a pace commensurate with the story and although this is an emotional evening of theatre, it is never depressing because it’s primarily about two determined people, living centuries apart, struggling to follow their vision while dealing with extreme physical challenges. It is also about the lives these people touch and how they are mutually influenced.

Anton Diabelli (Don Amendolia) holds Beethoven's 33 Variations on his mediocre waltz as Dr. Brandt and Beethoven look on
Signifying that they both accomplished their goals before it was too late, Dr. Brandt and Beethoven look on as Anton Diabelli holds Beethoven's 33 Variations on his mediocre waltz.

The standing ovation Miss Fonda and the superb ensemble received opening night, paid tribute to a most memorable theatrical experience.

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Let Bev know what you think about her traveling adventure.

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Thanks so much for those lovely tourism photos, especially of Ireland. I certainly enjoyed all the places you suggested, and am working towards my next vacation. Don’t forget Cuba. That’s an exciting place.

Rosalie, Los Angeles

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Enjoyed your article on Mira Sorvino. Such an interesting background – family, education, career and now human rights activist. I'm not a gossip mag fan so getting more meaty news about movie celebrities from you gives me hope that there are some inteligent life forms in Hollywood.

Peter Paul, Pasadena, CA

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Thank you, Bev. This reminded me to go see the movie, "An Education," which I had already almost forgotten about, having seen the preview a few weeks ago. I enjoy this actress quite a bit--she has a uniqueness about her and she pulls me in. I enjoyed this.

Sandeee, Seattle, WA

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Thank you Beverly,I really enjoyed reading about your intimate conversation with Forest, of whom I am a great admirer. I look forward to seeing the film "Our Family Wedding."

Yoka, Westlake Village, CA

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Thank you for the sending me the beautiful article you wrote about Ireland. We will use your recomendations for hotels in the Southern part. We plan to also go to Dublin and some other Northern cities so I will get some recommendations for these from others. After reading your article, I am getting more excited about going. I think we will be in Ireland for 8 days altogether.

Leah Mendelsohn, Santa Monica, CA

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Very much enjoyed Ms. Cohn's article about Munich, especially the visuals. Though it has been 25 years since my last visit, the piece brought back countless pleasant memories of the city and the people!! Many thanks.

Lawrence, Los Angeles

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Marianplatz and that general area is truly one of the best Christmas celebrations in the world. Between that and Oktoberfest (which I can only imagine) Munich is one of the greatest cities in the world for major annual events.

Christopher Dale, New York, NY

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Hi Bev, you have done some wonderful pieces on some great celebs...Great work. The travel articles are just wonderful too.

Scott Mueller, Huntington Beach, CA

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Your great Zurich article makes me want to go there for the holidays! I love the photos, too, especially the ones of you in the sleigh, the view over the houses and the zoo!

Anna Marie, Santa Monica, CA

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Lovely article! As a European, and having been to Zurich (albeit in summer) I can vouch for this lovely city. Great pictures, too!

Helene Robins, Santa Monica, CA

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Hi Bev,

Nice review, nice seeing you, nice website interface "...Talk to Bev" - Enjoy your Thanksgiving!

Richard D. Kaye, Marina del Rey, CA

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Hi Bev,

Your interview with John Cusack is very interesting. I always wondered why these actors/actresses always get top billing when really, if you think about it, the real work come from the animators, writers and tech whizzes who spend far more hours on the movie than those actors. I know, I know, it's the all about marketing. The names of these actors are what bring in the big bucks. Still, I think these actors are way overpaid for the "little" that they do.

I remember that once upon a time, the early animation classics never mentioned the voices behind the characters. I think it was only later when Walt Disney tapped into the voices of known celebrities like Walter Matthau in the Jungle Book or Zsa Zsa Gabor in The Rescuers that the voices became a marketing magnet.

Keep up the good work. I enjoy your interviews as you peer into the lives of the Hollywood celebrities.

Peter Paul of South Pasadena, CA

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