We know the music, but how many of us know the background of Russian composer Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky? In his one-man show, Our Great Tchaikovsky, the actor/playwright/designer/concert pianist Hershey Felder brings to life the personal history of this enigmatic figure in an engaging and artistically pleasing production. The show, playing at Hartford Stage, runs through August 27th.
On a minimally outfitted set, designed to resemble the interior and exterior of a country dacha, Felder delves into the musician’s legacy, both in character and through straightforward stories. For most of the performance he is seated behind a baby grand piano. In between his recitations, Felder pounces on the keyboard with enthusiasm and vitality on numerous compositions—from the little known to such heralded works as the “1812 Overture,” “Swan Lake,” and “The Nutcracker.”
Tchaikovsky’s entire life, according to the playwright/actor, was difficult and full of mistrust, heartbreak and social insecurity due, primarily, to is secretive homosexual yearnings and lifestyle. For every one of his triumphs there seemed to be an equally deflating personal note.
As playwright, Felder brings forth a highly satisfying depiction of the composer’s life, chronicling from the time he was a very young boy through his untimely and mysterious death. The actor portrays the tormented artist, along with a number of other individuals that crossed paths with him. These dramatics are interspersed with a healthy amount of virtuoso piano playing that amplifies and enlivens the action on stage. The only criticism of the show is Felder’s excursion into current Russian politics and attitudes towards the gay community. There is a slight reason for his discourse, within the context of the production, but the short digression could have easily been removed without undermining the overall thrust of the play. Likewise, the ending “shot” was confusing and, again, unnecessary.
Director Trevor Hay has the luxury of featuring the musical prowess of Hershey Felder whenever the narrative bogs down. He smartly never lets the story telling impede on the rhapsodic Tchaikovsky melodies. Hay also has a good read on the dynamic between the narrative and music, interspersing the two to create a compelling and appealing whole.
As Scenic Designer, Felder has kept the set simple, but elegant; full without being busy. Lighting and Projection Associate Brian McMullen has created beautifully appropriate projections that add a significant amount of realism, sparkle and enrichment to the show.
Our Great Tchaikovsky, well-acted, engrossing, and full of the glorious music of the Russian composer, playing at Hartford Stage through August 27th.