OUR GREAT TCHAIKOVSKY Theater Review
Actor/playwright/musician Hershey Felder’s stock in trade is a musicalized (uh, is that a word? If not, it is now) version of the one-man show. This triple threat dazzles audiences with his live depictions of musicians to the accompaniment of his own virtuoso piano playing. But Felder’s plays are far more than being solely solo concerts. Felder not only regales theatergoers with the sounds of talents such as George Gershwin, but engages auds with his vivid portrayals of the artists, unfolding their private and public lives.
I’ve previously had the immense, intense pleasure of enjoying Felder’s takes on Leonard Bernstein at the Geffen Playhouse and Irving Berlin at the Laguna Playhouse. Now he has made a triumphant return to the latter in his latest incarnation, as Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, composer of beloved classical masterpieces such as music for the beloved ballets “Nutcracker Suite” and “Swan Lake”, Symphony No. 6 in B Minor “Pathetique” and the “1812 Overture.” (Astoundingly, when Laguna Playhouse’s Artistic Director Ann Wareham thanked various sponsors before the curtain lifted on this one-act play presented without an intermission, the Quaker Oats Company - which had used the stirring “Overture” in commercials - was not among them.)
Considering that the late Romantic period composer and pianist lived in the 19th century, Our Great Tchaikovsky is a surprisingly topical work with contemporary political overtones. When the curtain lifts a bewigged Felder in period costume enters and reads aloud a letter which publicist David Elzer informed me is from “Independent producers in Russia not government officials. It is a real invitation to come to Russia that was issued at the time of the 2013 anti-homosexual laws” to perform his Tchaikovsky solo show there.
Tchaikovsky’s sexual preference is at the heart of Felder’s depiction of the gifted composer who was tormented by Mother Russia’s repressive patriarchy and purportedly propelled him into a rather unwise marriage, in order to wear a female “beard.” In doing so, the play is a reminder of the unbelievably barbaric cruelty of czarism, where Bolshevism or a same sex blow job could earn a Russian a one-way ticket to Siberia and other severe punishments.
But not content with referencing the past, Felder uses his play against the Russia of today, with broadsides against the current repressive regime and its crackdowns on homosexuality. In fact, at one point the actor breaks character and portrays Vladimir Putin himself, even as offstage the Kremlin is at the center of a swirling scandal regarding whether or not the Ruskies meddled in our presidential election and are in cahoots with Czar Donald, that archetypal American oligarch. (Hey, Trump and Putin were made for each other: One’s a pussy grabber, the other a Pussy Riot bullwhipper and jailer.) Married to Canada’s first female Prime Minister, Kim Campbell, it’s much to Felder’s credit that he is supporting gay rights at this time.
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Most of the time, however, Felder uses his best Boris Badenov accent to depict the title character, as we follow Piotr Ilyich from his childhood at Votkinsk, about 600 miles from Moscow, to boarding school at the far off Imperial School of Jurisprudence in St. Petersburg, where he was trained for the czarist civil service. Homophobes who may be tempted to dismiss Tchaikovsky as “unmanly” and as a “sissy” should consider what tremendous courage it took for him to turn his back on his career as a bureaucrat to boldly pursue his love of music, especially before Russia even had any music conservatories. Tchaikovsky may have practiced “the love that dare not say its name” but he poured his unspoken passion into some of the greatest music ever heard. (Poor guy: His lifelong loss was our eternal gain!)
Felder takes ticket buyers on a tumultuous journey through the trials, tribulations and peregrinations of the musician’s life and I learned much about the truly great Tchaikovsky, on- and offstage. For instance, about 70 years before the Beatles launched “the British Invasion” , the transplanted Muscovite spearheaded what could be called “the Russian Invasion.” Not only did Tchaikovsky tour the U.S.A. as a conductor but he was a big hit here and even wielded his baton at Carnegie Hall’s inaugural concert. In an amusing aside, Tchaikovsky is bemused by the Yankee-Doodle-Dandies’ affection for his “1812 Overture”, a beloved crowd pleaser this creative genius considered to be one of his lesser works - but nevertheless he’s grateful for Americans’ heartfelt accolades and appreciation. (Of course we’d love it - the “1812 Overture” is an ode to war, pitting the Napoleonic invading armies against Russia, and the U.S.A. is arguably the world’s most warlike nation since Imperial Rome. No wonder a cereal company deployed this overture in its commercials.)
Throughout the unraveling of Tchaikovsky’s ups and downs Felder tickles the ivories. Generally, he performs solo, although at one point he scats the symphonic accompaniment and a few other times he’s accompanied by recorded music. Christopher Ash’s projection design provides a visual accompaniment that from time-to-time illustrates the play’s plot points. The simple set conveys a sense of 19th century Russia and cleverly includes a hanging picture frame, with the portrait within it periodically changing, depending on who Felder is discussing at any particular moment. Felder veteran Trevor Hay ably directs the lively two hour or so show.
The play closes on a note of mystery, pondering what actually caused Tchaikovsky’s untimely death. Before the final curtain there is a shocking image and sound that seems to suggest that it what sMother Russia’s overbearing state is the culprit. This bioplay with live music world premiered last November at San Diego Repertory Theatre and with ripped from the headlines politics, it’s startlingly topical. To paraphrase another great composer: Roll over Vladimir Putin and tell Tchaikovsky the news!
Our Great Tchaikovsky is playing through March 26 on Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. with matinees Saturdays at 2:00 p.m., plus Sundays at 1:00 p.m. with additional shows on Sunday, March 12 at 5:30 p.m., and Thursdays March 16 and 23 at 2:00 p.m., at the Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach, CA 92651. Hershey Felder is also presenting “The Great American Songbook Sing-Along” on March 14, 20 and 21 at 7:30 p.m. at the Laguna Playhouse. For more info: (949)497-2787; www.LagunaPlayhouse.com.
L.A.-based critic and film historian Ed Rampell is the presenter and programmer of “10 Films That Shook the World”, a monthly cinematic centennial celebration of the Russian Revolution taking place through Nov. 7 at the Los Angeles Workers Center, 1251 S. St. Andrews Place, L.A., CA 90019. Sergei Eisenstein’s classic “Battleship Potemkin” is being screened there at 7:30 p.m., March 24.