When it comes to drama, Ludwig van Beethoven was the ultimate one-man show. For all his public calamities—alcoholic father, miserable love life, bad health, fickle patrons, hassles with his nephew Karl, his own rotten personality and above all his deafness—the real crises in his world were private.
In life, he was the quintessential loner. In culture, he was—if you believe Paul Johnson in The Birth of the Modern—the first modern artist: he "established and popularized the notion of the artist as universal genius . . . as a kind of intermediary between God and Man." Just put him on a stage by himself, and you've got an orchestra pit full of dramatic opportunities. At least that's what the Chance Theater and director Patricia Miller are hoping for with their production of Ronald Russell's Beethoven: Heaven's Voice.
Russell has done a respectable job of culling Beethoven's written words and crafting them into a rough biographical arc, underscoring key points with a running chronology of his music (the soundtrack to the man's life, naturally). The result is occasionally a trifle bizarre: when we're watching him playing a small spinet piano and hearing instead the giant tones of a concert grand, we must be inside Beethoven's head, not his house.
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As Beethoven, Bradley Miller's wig is way too tame and he looks too healthy for 1826, but his command of Romantic-era vernacular is almost volcanic (even when he trips over himself). Beethoven was supremely full of himself but also bemused by his power over others, and Miller's rants nail both personalities, though one could wish for less soprano foppishness and more baritone gravitas.
As in the biopic Immortal Beloved, Russell takes the license of establishing the identity of Beethoven's mystery lover, hammering away at the phrase "immortal beloved" a few times too many. (Maybe he should try "unsterbliche geliebte" once or twice to break things up. We're just saying.)
But false notes like these are mostly few and far between. The real tenor of the play is echoed in the shiny black-and-white keys on Beethoven's keyboard. Aside from conjecture about the identity of the "beloved," the play is a fairly literal chronology of the composer's life. Classical music breeds idolatry the way swamps breed mosquitoes, so the play's religious title is cause for suspicion. When you see Beethoven's study—a phalanx of churchlike windows with rainbow backlighting—you know you're in a place of worship.
Beethoven: Heaven's Voice at the Chance Theater, 5576 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills, (714) 821-6903. Sat.-Sun., 5 p.m. Through Feb. 24. $13-$15.