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Regional Reviews: San Diego

Our Great Tchaikovsky
San Diego Repertory Theatre
Review by David Dixon | Season Schedule


Hershey Felder
Photo by Daren Scott
In recent years, Hershey Felder has been involved with several acclaimed projects presented by the San Diego Repertory Theatre. Not long ago, he starred as Leonard Bernstein in Maestro and he directed Grammy-nominated pianist Mona Golabek in The Pianist of Willesden Lane. What makes this new "play with music," Our Great Tchaikovsky, a special experience is that it's the first time Felder stars in a world premiere at the Lyceum Theatre.

The actor/pianist/writer/set designer introduces himself by telling the audience that he has been invited to perform as Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky in Russia. Before revealing whether or not he decided to go, Felder transforms into Tchaikovsky and lets the audience know about the composer's personal life. Tchaikovsky discusses everything, from his unhappy childhood, mostly repressed sexuality, and his quick marriage to Antonina Miliukova. He also finds time to share stories about his timeless music featured in the ballets Swan Lake and The Nutcracker.

Similar to his previous one-man shows, Felder is the glue holding everything together. The multi-talented solo performer acts and plays the piano seamlessly, and keeps theatregoers engaged with his storytelling. When in character, Felder's writing takes Tchaikovsky's social awkwardness seriously. While sensitively handled, the playwright finds humor in the often surreal situations that the great composer lived through. Felder's piano skills are emotional to listen to and watch.

Trevor Hay's staging complements Felder's previous collaborations with director Joel Zwick. Without drawing attention away from the action, Hay uses different design elements to help tell Felder's tale. Set in Tchaikovsky's dacha, the intimate scenery lets audience members feel like the legend is speaking directly to them. Erik Carstensen's sound uses symphony recordings of Tchaikovsky's compositions for several poignant moments. Christopher Ash's lighting creates a music hall atmosphere, and his projections mix portraits and occasional video footage.

As the night goes on, the biggest conflict that Tchaikovsky goes through is trying to not act on his homosexual desires. Some of the most empathetic moments of Felder's performance show the loneliness that Tchaikovsky suffered through in his lifetime. This provides an opportunity for Felder to comment on how very little progress continues to be made for tolerance toward sexual orientation in Russia. In Our Great Tchaikovsky Felder has taken the rare opportunity to tie his script to modern times. His 21st century Russian set sequence will resonate with many watching the Romanticism-themed evening.

Balancing the somber moments of prejudice are joyful segments focusing on Tchaikovsky's classic work. Felder depicts Tchaikovsky as an endlessly passionate lover of music who wouldn't give up on his dreams. If he didn't devote his existence to his craft, Tchaikovsky never would have written music to ballet masterpieces or his beloved "1812 Overture." Even though the majority of his work wasn't initially well received, it's inspiring to hear the tales about how some of the greatest works of art were created.

Unlike other dramas from Felder, Our Great Tchaikovsky doesn't feel complete just yet. This is pretty much acknowledged during moments when Felder is talking directly to the audience. What this means is that Felder's book is likely going to change in future incarnations.

Pacing issues only occur when Felder shares facts about the 1800s. There are instances when his narration isn't necessary. Certain lines can be rewritten to fit Tchaikovsky's perspective.

Felder's latest musical play gives music connoisseurs the chance to hear classic melodies and relevant social commentary. Longtime fans won't be disappointed and those unfamiliar with Felder can find out why he continues to be a deservedly successful artist.

San Diego Repertory Theatre presents Our Great Tchaikovsky through February 12, 2017, Sundays through Saturdays at 79 Horton Plaza. Tickets start at $20.00 and can be purchased online at www.sdrep.org or by phone at 1-619-544-1000.


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