Felder Strikes a Political Chord in ‘Tchaikovsky’

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Hersey Felder embodies the Russian composer Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky. Photo courtesy of Laguna Playhouse
Hersey Felder embodies the Russian composer Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky.
Photo courtesy of Laguna Playhouse

From Chopin to Beethoven, Bernstein to Gershwin, actor, playwright and musician Hershey Felder has through brilliant impersonations, replete with accents, a gamut of idiosyncrasies and streams of narrative brought back to life composers on the Laguna Playhouse stage.

Now he has outdone himself in his newest production, “Our Great Tchaikovsky,” where he not only tells the story of a stellar artist, but of a man tormented by his own sexuality.

Through narrative, both poignant and humorous, vocals and his signature prowess at the piano, Felder illuminates the life of Pyotr (Peter) Ilych Tchaikovsky, composer of ballets such as “Swan Lake” and the “Nutcracker,” romantic symphonies and operas, and the near ubiquitous “1812 Overture.” His prolific output, inspired by European more than Russian culture, captivated Europe and the United States, but often fell on critically deaf ears at home.

Felder begins by portraying Tchaikovsky as a musical youngster inspired by his mother who excels at the piano. The piano was an instrument that in 19th century Russia was considered the domain of ladies and so his parents determined that he may play music, but only as much as absolutely necessary.

Felder gives a dramatic impression of the kid being trundled off to boarding school at age 10, where he began the stringent education preparing him for a career as a civil servant. There, a bit older, he also fell in with a group of dandies who helped set him on the course that eventually turned him into a fearful recluse troubled by his romantic predilections. Those also inspired gems like the “Overture for Romeo and Juliet,” written under infatuation with his nephew.

While described as a gentle soul, as a gay man he navigated a society that condemned and ruthlessly isolated “buggers,” who if exposed were sent into terminal exile in Siberia.

Early on, the show takes a different turn altogether. Felder informs the audience that in 2013 he received a letter from Moscow inviting him to tell the story of Russia’s most famous composer there. Unexpectedly, he asks the audience if he should go, given the repressive treatment endured by gay, lesbian and transgender residents in present-day Russia. For example, a 2013 national law signed by President Vladimir Putin, makes it illegal to speak about homosexuality around minors. A 2014 report by Human Rights Watch outlines abuses against the LGBT community.

Based on the strength of applause for the opening night show, Felder should pack his bags.

Some might wonder if the invitation is a script device. Playhouse artistic director Ann E. Wareham confirmed that Felder received the invite in 2013. This was the same year Russia’s culture minister, Vladimir Medinsky declared that Tchaikovsky was not gay.

The invitation inspired Felder to write the play and also take a socio-political stand. He portrays Tchaikovsky’s struggle and pain as an outsider with such empathy that one might speculate about his own sexual identity. He is married to Kim Campbell, a former prime minister of Canada.

Yet, for all its serious undertones, there are touches of humor, even hilarity. Take exhortations by some contemporaries to compose “Russian” music. He wryly noted the conceit of a group calling itself “The Mighty Handful,” (Mily Balakirev, Alexander Borodin, Cesar Cui, Modest Mussorgsky and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov) deriding their provinciality and noting that music is universal.

Throughout, Felder deftly captures the hyperventilation of Slavic criticisms, while imitating the Rubinstein brothers, Nikolai and Anton, and others. Nikolai invited Tchaikovsky to teach at the Moscow Conservatory, tore apart his compositions but deigned to play them when they found acclaim elsewhere. Felder says that Russia is in his blood, and one might well take him at his word.

Then there is the genesis of the “1812,” a commission written ostensibly to commemorate the year when the Russians beat off Napoleon’s army. Here Felder pummels the piano, yells the orchestra part, informs the audience that it was a commission accepted strictly for cash and calls it loud enough to wake the dead. He noted with some bemusement that it became a mega-hit in the United States after debuting at the opening of Carnegie Hall in New York.

In the stage design, Felder created a multi-dimensional setting incorporating the quaint decor of a Russian dacha, replete with vintage photos of Tchaikovsky’s mother and other leading characters, its surrounding birch trees and the studio he works in. The overall lighting design by Christopher Ash adds to the set’s appeal. Including background projections of swan’s wings for “Swan Lake” and fireworks for the 1812, he created a vintage romantic and yet contemporary ambience.

That particularly applies to the end of the production, which will not be given away here.

Felder also touches on Tchaikovsky’s trajectory, which includes a short, disastrous marriage to music student Antonina Milyokova. She later threatened to out him unless paid off. Hardship was leavened by the 14-year patronage of Nadezhda von Meck, a wealthy widow whose 6,000 rubles a year stipend allowed him to quit the conservatory and concentrate on composing. Yet, the two never met in person.

Lastly, he emphatically portrays the composer as an old man at age 53, gray-bearded and bent by a life lived simultaneously in lightness and dark. The cause of his death in 1893 is still a source of speculation, with the official version stating that he died of cholera and another, credited by historians, by his own hand. Felder endorses the latter.

He also intends to go to Moscow.

The show, directed by Trevor Hay, will be onstage through March 26 at the Laguna Playhouse, its second run since its San Diego premiere in January. By coincidence, the show’s most haunting theme echoed in a contemporary film that achieved prominence a month later, the story of a tormented and bullied gay black boy in “Moonlight” that won

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