EXCLUSIVE: Our Great Tchaikovsky, a biographical play-cum-concert about the Russian composer that concluded an acclaimed run two weeks ago at the Wallis Annenberg Center in Los Angeles, will open September 21 at The Other Palace, a small theater in London’s West End.
The Tchaikovsky show interweaves performances from the composer’s oeuvre with a narrative that contrasts his role as a celebrated public artist with his tortured private life as a closeted gay artist in an intensely homophobic culture. The solo show, written and performed by Hershey Felder, replaces a plan to present his similar shows about Leonard Bernstein and Irving Berlin.
I’ve learned that a combination of the show’s U.S. success and the heightened relevance of gay civil rights protests, especially in Russia, spurred Felder to make the program switch.
“The play opens with Felder, as himself, showing us a 2013 letter from the Russian government inviting him to perform as the country’s national hero,” Los Angeles Times classical music critic Rick Schultz wrote in his July 25 review. “This, after the Russian minister of culture had just officially declared the composer not gay. Felder then takes on the persona of Tchaikovsky, with an impeccable Russian accent and pronunciation. As a showman, Felder’s feat of memory — he performs on piano while speaking, and he also sings — is assured.”
An accomplished pianist, Felder performs excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s most popular compositions, including his Nutcracker ballet, The 1812 Overture, 6th Symphony and more. Co-directed by the Montreal-born performer and his frequent collaborator, Trevor Hay, the show is described as “a time-bending tale of music and politics and the story of one of the world’s most beloved composers. Tchaikovsky’s life story has a particular resonance for our times, and Felder’s unique combination of theatrical performance and pianistic skill promises to bring Tchaikovsky to life in a completely original manner.”
Felder quotes Tchaikovsky saying, “Music doesn’t have a nationality. It is simply human.”
“If only the intolerant Russian government thought so,” Schultz wrote. “The tragedy of homophobia, still pervasive in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, runs through Felder’s play.”
The composer of startling, dark-themed ballets (Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake) and roof-raising Romantic symphonies, concertos and operas, a healthy 53-year-old Tchaikovsky conducted the premiere of his enigmatic Symphony No. 6, “Pathétique” in 1893 in St. Petersburg. Nine days later he was dead.
“Felder crams an awful lot of information into the play, including Tchaikovsky’s disastrously brief marriage in 1877 to Antonina Ivanovna Milyukova, his pupil at the Moscow Conservatory,” Schultz wrote. “A section toward the end, reviewing the mystery surrounding his death, either from cholera or suicide in 1893 at age 53, remains intriguing.”
Felder whose Bernstein play, Maestro, was cited by Time magazine as one of the 10 best shows of 2016, also includes Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt and Gershwin as subjects of his musical explorations. Our Great Tchaikovsky is slated to run through October 22 at the Other Palace, with opening night scheduled for September 26. It’s produced by Samantha F. Voxakis, Karen Racanelli, Erik Carstensen with Tom Wirtshafter with Fane Productions.