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The La Jolla Playhouse’s 33 Variations, about Ludwig van Beethoven’s obsession with a paltry theme by Diabelli, concluded its run in early May. San Diego theater’s homage to the maestro continues at the Old Globe, where Hershey Felder’s Beethoven, As I Knew Him is having its world premiere. Variations explored the creative process; As I Knew Him looks at Beethoven through the eyes of Gerhard von Breuning, his last living friend.

It’s 1870, 100th anniversary of Ludwig van’s birth. Gerhard, whose father was one of Beethoven’s few trusted friends, prepares for a tribute to the genius. He recalls his first sight of the composer (to the 12-year-old Gerhard, scruffy Beethoven looked like a “vagrant”). He performs the miraculous “Sonata in C Sharp Minor” and the Hegelian “Sonata Pathetique” on the piano and describes incidents from the life: unrequited loves, a controlling relationship with nephew Karl, encroaching deafness, appalling living conditions — including an unemptied chamber pot.

In print, Beethoven has proved larger than any single biography. To grasp the life, the mind, and the music, one should read Alexander Thayer’s two volumes, Maynard Solomon’s psychological study, Lewis Lockwood’s recent opus, and throw in J.W.N. Sullivan’s Beethoven, His Spiritual Development, which T.S. Eliot read and then wrote “The Four Quartets” for good measure.

Beethoven also proves to be much larger than Felder’s sketchy piece, which gives the symphonies short shrift — we hear snatches at best — and highlights the oddities of the life. Except for the famous letter to his brothers, in which Beethoven wrote from the heart about deafness, the piece offers little about how he made immortal music in spite of his infirmities.

Felder scored a hit with his George Gershwin, Alone at the Old Globe, in part because Gershwin composed short, easily recognized, unforgettable music. Felder could encapsulate Gershwin. His trying to encapsulate Beethoven is like playing only the first four notes of the Fifth Symphony and saying, “That’s pretty much it.”

The opening-night audience gave Felder a standing ovation. And he earned one, not so much for his acting — he makes von Breuning and Beethoven more one-note attitudes than developed characters — but for his performance on the piano, which, on occasion, can spellbind, and for the tour de force combination of doing characters with precise German accents, narrating a 90-minute show, and playing swaths of difficult Beethoven (the left hand always gets a workout from the maestro) with few mistakes.

Francois-Pierre Couture’s dark, spare set includes a large open book, or piece of sheet music, a gold ribbon bookmark down the middle, on which projections depict half-real, half-glimpsed, ghostly figures. At first they resemble white ink Rorschachs — what you see is what you get — but they work well, giving the eye something to scan while the music fills the heart. Spare, shiny props and Felder’s long gray hair and stiff, black Victorian outfit also enhance the look. The design values, and Joel Zwick’s unfussy direction, serve the show, which needs major rethinking, however. Right now it showcases Felder’s many impressive skills far more than it does Beethoven’s.

***

When it opened in 1998, Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi raised as much of a ruckus as when Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice produced Jesus Christ Superstar as a double record album in 1970. McNally overlaps the traditional story of the Nazarene — or Nasarean Essene, if current scholarship is correct — with the rise and fall of Joshua, a gay man from McNally’s home town (named for the “body of Christ”).

The ruckus aside, Corpus Christi’s a kind of gay Godspell, without music, a story theater version of the traditional tale bilocated in 1950s Texas. The first act combines satires of pageants (“boy, did we party!”) with horrific homophobic cruelty. In Act Two, Joshua abandons his sexuality altogether. What follows is the predictable sequence of events; the only questions concern how the show will stage Gethsemane, Pilate’s hand-washing, the Crucifixion.

The play moves from scattered eagerness to ultimate seriousness, which explains why the Diversionary cast begins with such broad, chipper smiles and relentless bear-hugs and why they have no curtain call. Dressed in khakis and white shirts and performing barefoot, the group grows into a tight ensemble. Standouts include Trevor Bowles’s Joshua, sincere without being sanctimonious (no mean feat); Rich Carillo’s coke-snorting Judas, a sexual predator with a major comeuppance; and Rachael Van Wormer’s sharp, funny performances in several roles.

Corpus Christi, among other things, is about persecution. The original cast was all male. Director Nic Arnzen got the playwright’s permission to include women, which expands the theme exponentially. In a note Arnzen points out the parallels between the play and the story of Matthew Shepard, a gay man murdered crucifixion-style in Laramie, Wyoming. Shepard died the day before Corpus Christi opened.

Beethoven, As I Knew Him, by Hershey Felder
Old Globe Theatre, Simon Edison Centre for the Performing Arts, Balboa Park
Directed by Joel Zwick; cast: Felder; scenic design, François-Pierre Couture; costumes, Carole Boue; lighting, Richard Norwood; sound, Erik Carstensen; projection design, Andrew Wilder, Christopher Ash
Playing through June 8; Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-234-5623.

Corpus Christi, by Terrence McNally
Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Boulevard, University Heights
Directed by Nic Arnzen; cast: Rachael Van Wormer, Brian Mackey, Jesse Allen Moore, Zachary Bryant, Anna Rebek, Kate Hewitt, Jessica Parsell, Scott Andrew Amiotte, Keifla, Tom Doyle, John Whitley, Trevor Bowles, Rich Carrillo; scenic and sound design, Nic Arnzen; lighting, Stephen Siercks
Playing through June 1; Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-220-0097.

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