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Our Great Tchaikovsky at San Diego Rep

At odds with the Russian state-approved narrative

Hershey Felder
  • Hershey Felder

Hershey Felder portrays famed composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and others in Our Great Tchaikovsky. Combining a piano concert, a one-man show, and political theater, Felder creates a performance that both entertains and makes audiences think.

Our Great Tchaikovsky

Felder displays his range of talents as both a concert pianist and an accomplished actor, switching from character to character to share the life story of the composer who brought us such beloved compositions as The Sleeping Beauty Ballet, Swan Lake, The 1812 Overture, and The Nutcracker Ballet. Felder recounts and performs Tchaikovsky’s biography while intermittently playing excerpts of the composer’s music on a piano. This mixture of live music with expressive storytelling is unique and something few others can execute like Felder.

At times, Felder’s acting and narrative coexist, but eventually he becomes enraptured by Tchaikovsky’s music. Then, he demonstrates the piano skills that make him a performer of extraordinary talent. He sways and moves, his face occasionally contorting with notes played that prove exceptionally powerful for him.

Felder also designed the scenic space. The Steinway grand piano sits center stage, flanked with platforms decorated with period furniture and props. On one side, shelves of books suggest a library, and on the other sits a desk; both sides contain candles and candelabrum, which light and extinguish like magic between scenes. Along the upstage wall, a series of birch trees add dramatic height and a sense of distant nature.

Other design elements support the performance, never overpowering or distracting from Felder. Costumes by Abigail Caywood take shape gradually, developing as the story does. Animated projections by Christopher Ash periodically appear behind Felder on the rear wall, beyond the birch trees, to add beautiful backdrops to the stage picture, never detracting from but instead supplementing. The same applies to lighting, also designed by Ash, which subtly changes colors to shift between moods and moments.

Occasionally Felder becomes himself, directly addressing the audience as an objective observer. In so doing, actor and characters coexist in one body onstage. Such symbiosis highlights the relevant implications of Tchaikovsky’s life when presented in a contemporary context, particularly when at odds with the Russian state-approved narrative.

The relevance of Tchaikovsky’s biography today becomes apparent as the show goes on. Without revealing too much, let’s just say it is clear the “our” in Our Great Tchaikovsky is a political statement. By using that word, suggesting collective ownership of the artist, Felder reclaims Tchaikovsky’s music and his identity as a gay icon for all the world and not just for Russia, a country that repeatedly denies his queer truth to advance conservative political narratives.

With so much to offer — exquisite music, artistically thoughtful images, amusing characters, and the life story of a composer most people have heard of but probably know little about — Our Great Tchaikovsky has something for everyone and should not be missed.

Playing through February 12

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