BWW Review: OUR GREAT TCHAIKOVSKY at Hartford Stage
As Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky once said "To regret the past, to hope in the future, and never to be satisfied with the present: that is what I spend my whole life doing". These words, from arguably the greatest Russian composer of all time, summarize well the life of this conflicted, yet brilliant musician. His life as an artist struggling with his own sexuality in 19th century, Czarist Russia, was not that far from what life would be like for him in the Russia of 2017, especially with recent efforts by the Russian government to ban distribution of materials promoting LGBT relationships - a comparison that serves as an undertone to the play. Tchaikovsky's life story, full of struggle and beautiful music comes to brilliant life at Hartford Stage in Hershey Felder's production of OUR GREAT TCHAIKOVSKY.
Like his many previous pieces (two of which played at Hartford Stage in 2004 and 2006 - George Gershwin ALONE and MONSIEUR CHOPIN, respectively), Hershey Felder's OUR GREAT TCHAIKOVSKY captures the essence of the man behind the music and shares his story through dialogue and, of course, his compositions. The show begins with the sharing of a surprising letter sent to Mr. Felder from the Russian government, and then jumps right into Tchaikovsky's tale with Mr. Felder both playing and "playing" Tchaikovsky. The audience is introduced to his youth and his cold, but talented mother, his experiences at school and his decision to leave a life of civil service to pursue his true passion: composing. And speaking of passions, over the course of the evening, Tchaikovsky (Hershey Felder) shares the forbidden passion that haunts him (and inspires him). The audience is introduced to the many people who come in and out of Tchaikovsky's life, from patrons, to peers and objects of infatuation. Underscoring all of these stories is, of course, Tchaikovsky's beautiful music. Some of the pieces included in the production are his ballets SLEEPING BEAUTY, SWAN LAKE, and THE NUTCRACKER, the opera EUGENE ONEGIN, a number of his concertos, and, in one of the funnier scenes of the evening, the 1812 OVERTURE.
In OUR GREAT TCHAIKOVSKY, Hershey Felder shows why he has been called a "quadruple threat performer." Not only did he write the piece, but he acts, sings, and is a brilliant pianist as well. When these skills are combined, Mr. Felder is able to transport the audience into the life of this man who he so clearly connects with on a deep level. The audience hears the pain in Tchaikovsky's voice through Mr. Felder's delivery yet feels the true passion that comes through when he plays some of the most recognizable and emotional works of classical music. Mr. Felder embodies Tchaikovsky on stage in such a real way that sometimes the lines between actor and character blur (especially when he plays) and one feels like they may have been transported back 140 years to Russia. As a play, the story is strong and presents Tchaikovsky's life in a narrative dialogue that not only inspires but informs (I learned quite a few things about the man that I didn't know before seeing this production.)
In presenting OUR GREAT TCHAIKOVSKY, Hartford Stage provides theater-goers with an intimate yet heartbreaking portrait of man whose music they may know, but not necessarily his life's struggles. And while Mr. Felder's performance shines on so many levels, he is supported greatly by a well-designed set (also designed by Mr. Felder - make that a quintuple threat!), lighting and projection design by Christopher Ash which serves as a beautiful backdrop for the music and the stories, and costumes by Abigail Caywood that capture the period well.
Overall, OUR GREAT TCHAIKOVSKY is both moving and heartbreaking and captures a time that seems forgotten, but yet, so current. It successfully blends the theatrical with piano performance, and does this effortlessly because of the unique talents of Hershey Felder. The only shame is that the production will only run a one-week engagement at Hartford Stage.
OUR GREAT TCHAIKOVSKY runs as a Limited Engagement at Hartford Stage in Hartford, CT through August 27th. Hartford Stage is located at 50 Church Street, Hartford, CT 06103. Performances are Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. There will be a Wednesday matinee at 2 p.m. on August 23. For more information call 860-527-5151 or visit www.hartfordstage.com