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Theater Review: “Our Great Tchaikovsky”

Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm.; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.
Photo credit:
San Diego Repertory Theatre

Tchaikovsky started piano lessons at five, but five years after that his parents (unconvinced that music could be a viable career) sent him off to St. Petersburg to an academy that would train him for life as a civil servant.

He dutifully followed that course, and worked for a few years as a civil servant. But his heart was in music, despite his parents’ warning that “music is not for boys.

Music is for ladies.” He grew up to become not only a musician – a risky enough choice – but also an endangered species in Russia – a gay man.

Hershey Felder, who has made a career doing one-man shows about famous composers (among them Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein and Beethoven), presents his new show – “Our Great Tchaikovsky” – through Feb. 12 on San Diego Repertory’s Lyceum Stage.

Felder even injects himself into this show: it opens with a letter inviting him to do his Tchaikovsky show in Moscow.

He had to think a while about that: not only have Russian authorities stated categorically that the composer was not gay (he was, and was always fearful of being exposed), but official Russia is still intolerant of the LGBT community. So it’s possible he could be jailed for just touring this show.

At the age of 37, Tchaikovsky entered into a disastrous marriage, which lasted two and a half months and left him overwrought and with writer’s block.

Fortunately, his family supported him, as did patroness Nadezhda von Meck, whose financial help allowed him to focus on composition.

Felder plays himself, the composer and several other people in Tchaikovsky’s life, among them friend and fellow pianist Nikolai Rubenstein, who hired Tchaikovsky to teach harmony at the Moscow Conservatory.

But mostly, Felder plays the piano wonderfully.

He concentrates on Tchaikovsky’s greatest hits, including the “Romeo and Juliet” overture, excerpts from his ballets “Swan Lake” and “Nutcracker” and even does rollicking solo piano versions of the “1812 Overture” and the First Piano Concerto on the concert grand that takes up much of stage right. 

On the other side of the stage is a desk; here he composes letters to the likes of patroness von Meck, whom he never met. On the wall is a large picture frame, which initially holds a picture (or a projection) of Tchaikovsky’s mother. From my balcony vantage point, it was difficult to make out much in the way of features.

More expansive projections (by lighting designer Christopher Ash) are used at the rear of the stage, and include a row of birch trees, several cold and/or snowy scenes, a group of skaters, and the composer’s dacha. 

Felder’s shows are both riveting and enlightening, often funny and always offer some fine piano playing. But this is the first time he’s injected politics into the show. So now I’ll add “brave” to that list of adjectives.

“Our Great Tchaikovsky” is a worthy addition to Felder’s list of composer shows. 

The details

“Our Great Tchaikovsky” plays through February 12, 2017 at San Diego Repertory Theatre’s Lyceum Stage, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown.

Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm.; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.

Tickets: (619) 544-1000 or www.sdrep.org