Apparently Russian politics is not only something that could be impacting major world events, but now you find it as a central point in the new Hershey Felder show “Our Great Tchaikovsky” at the San Diego Repertory Theatre.
This play starts with Hershey as himself, on the stage reading a letter he received from the Russian government. They had heard of his show about the life of their famous composer and are asking him to come and perform it in their country. The rub in this request comes from the fact that Tchaikovsky was a homosexual in a country that was hostile to that lifestyle, and the fact that they still are hostile to anyone contributing to pro-gay “propaganda,” which portraying him truthfully would be considered, would then put Felder in danger as well. So, with stakes like this, what do you do?
It is this middle gray area of who are you, what do you do with your art, and what impact your actions have are recurring themes in the life of Tchaikovsky and therefore in the show. Loving and losing people in his life because of his sexuality or the rumors of it, including his long-standing patron Nadezhda von Meck, kept him in a spot where he was always wondering where he fit in. His music straddles a similar line by being both heavily influenced by Russian culture, but also set within Western music standards and guidelines. His combination of the two often brought him criticism that it wasn’t really either.
As an actor, Felder navigates this middle ground, and the frustration and heartbreak that it could bring Tchaikovsky at times, with a light touch; if it was played any heavier it would quickly turn into a melodrama. In fact, it is these times of loneliness and sometimes social awkwardness that Felder makes this genius the most relatable. This being one in a long line of one man shows based on composers, Felder knows how to keep everything moving and when to lighten a mood with moments of humor. He is also a pro at keeping the transfers from character, back to himself for some observations or asides, and back again as seamless as possible.
Yet, it is when he is going into the details of the music, or playing it that he truly and fully seems to embody his characters. Felder is truly stunning as he plays selections that vary from delicate and delightful like “Swan Lake”, “The Nutcracker”, iconically romantic with “Romeo and Juliet,” to bombastic and histrionic in “The 1812 Overture.” With the addition of the music the character and his compositions become whole and at times simultaneously beautiful and bittersweet.
The set (also designed by Felder) is a lovely landscape of elegant trees, his family dacha and library of his longtime patron. It is complemented by elegant and delicate projections and lighting by Christopher Ash which lead to some thoughtful and thought provoking images.
It is at the end that he politics, the story and the projections come full circle and create a moment that is purposefully sensational, and while I personally could have done with a touch less melodrama for the point, the point is made nonetheless. It is as much piano concert, and social and political commentary as it is a biography of a truly talented composer.
San Diego Repertory Theatre presents “Our Great Tchaikovsky” through February 12th, 2017. Ticket and show time information can be found at www.sdrep.org