The format of "Our Great Tchaikovsky" will be mostly familiar to fans of Felder's other shows, as he combines his incredible piano skills with his knack for storytelling, bringing to life the composer of "The Nutcracker," "Swan Lake" and other masterpieces through first-person anecdotes (complete with Slavic accent). But with "Tchaikovsky," Felder also breaks character from time to time to speak to the audience about the process of creating the show as well as about the fraught socio-political climate in both Tchaikovsky's and modern Russia, and how that climate ties in to Felder's attempt to provide a respectful, fair and true story of Tchaikovsky's life.
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born in 1840 and died under mysterious circumstances just before the turn of the century. Educated to become a civil servant, he, like so many artists since time immemorial, defied his family's plans for him in order to pursue his musical dreams. Though his work was eventually favored by the czar, affording him some creature comforts, and his popularity in the United States led to him performing at the inaugural concert at New York City's Carnegie Hall, he nonetheless lived a difficult life, often scraping by on commissions. His work is romantic, passionate and beautiful, fusing Western technique and knowledge with a native Russian touch — the tunes that launched a thousand would-be black swans and sugar-plum fairies — and in Felder's deft hands both he and his music are thoroughly appealing.
Felder does not attempt to answer the question of how Tchaikovsky, seemingly in good health until the end, really died. Was it broken-hearted suicide, murder or is the "official" story of cholera spread through tainted drinking water the true explanation? The mystery lives on, as does his music.
Today, Russia is proud to claim him but reluctant, Felder explains, to accept an important aspect of his life: his apparent homosexuality. This "proclivity," as Felder's Tchaikovsky refers to it, haunted and shamed him, dooming him to a life of guilt, secrecy and loneliness, and the fear of being outed and punished. Even sadder, Felder points out, is that the Russian government of today is scarcely any more tolerant of homosexuality, passing laws against it in recent years and turning a blind eye to vigilante acts of brutality, and unwilling to accept it in the biography of their cherished Tchaikovsky. This information adds a poignancy and relevance to the show that makes the experience of spending an evening with the artist all the more meaningful.
All these productions really need to succeed are Felder, a piano and the music, but TheatreWorks audiences are granted an extra treat in the form of Felder's own scenic design and Christopher Ash's lighting and projection design, turning the stage into a gorgeous dacha (Russian country house), among other locales. The audience literally gasped in awe when the delicate woodland trees were illuminated near the top of the show and were further delighted by projections of birds, deer, snowfall and more over the course of the show. All these bells and whistles are superfluous but highly enjoyable, a visual accompaniment to the glorious sounds on stage.
The show, directed by longtime Felder collaborator Trevor Hay, which runs for more than 90 minutes without intermission, sometimes gets bogged down under the weight of Russian names and the cramming-in of biographical facts, but Felder fans will thoroughly relish another evening with the maestro.
Russian powers that be, it seems, are happy to celebrate Tchaikovsky as a national symbol — as the possessive "our" in the title suggests — but all too willing to deny his humanity. Felder brings that humanity to the forefront.
What: "Our Great Tchaikovsky"
Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View
When: Through Feb. 11.
Cost: $40-$100, depending on seat choice.
Info: Go to theatreworks.org.
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