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'Our Great Tchaikovsky' at Laguna Playhouse offers a new look at the famed Russian composer

By Eric Marchese

A composer’s sexual orientation should rarely, if ever, enter into our estimation of him or his music, especially if he’s a world-renowned figure from classical music.

But when those tendencies shape his personality, life and music, and his native country legislates homosexuality as a crime, that factor can’t be ignored.

That makes Hershey Felder’s “Our Great Tchaikovsky,” directed by Trevor Hay at Laguna Playhouse through March 26, unique among his collection of painstakingly researched, written and performed one-man shows.

Felder portrays the 19th-century Russian composer and performs excerpts of his music on the piano – but this time around, he repeatedly breaks the fourth wall to address us, as himself, as a way of providing a more informed perspective.

Tchaikovsky, we learn, lived his entire life in a state of fear at being exposed as gay and exiled by the Russian government to Siberia.

Felder relates to us that he has been invited by Russian producers to bring this show to Russia so the Russian people can celebrate the life and music of one of their greatest composers – but that the continuing stigma of being gay in Russia poses logistical obstacles.

Anti-homosexual laws have been rigorously enforced during the Putin administration, leading to a horrifyingly high incidence of persecution of gays. Amid all of this, in 2013, Russia’s minister of culture made a public declaration that Tchaikovsky was not gay – in effect, attempting to put forth a statement that flies in the face of all facts and evidence to the contrary.

This affects Felder’s latest show by interjecting elements of tension and controversy as well as posing an emphatic warning regarding the dangers of making moral judgments about artists and their work. The result is that “Our Great Tchaikovsky” is, like its subject, oddly schizophrenic, housing two distinct personalities.

For the composer, that duality meant pouring his passions, emotions and often unrequited loves for other men into his music, leaving it to others to speculate as to the inspirations for his works – then keeping his angst and shame as private as he could manage.

For the show, it means that part of it deals with harsh truths, painting a portrait of an artist’s torment that’s a product of his time and place, all delivered to us by Felder as himself – while the complementary part is akin to other Felder shows, with the gentle, almost timid composer addressing us directly, in broken English, about his life, describing how his pieces came to be, and playing them.

That schism makes “Our Great Tchaikovsky” an intriguing if not always artistically successful marriage of dissimilar halves. And if the factual colloquy makes us shift uncomfortably in our seats, the music itself is simply stunning: One can only react in astonishment at the brilliance of Felder’s pianistic pyrotechnics.

As represented on the piano, selections from “The Seasons” have a strong Russian flavor, varying from lushly gorgeous, haunting, slow-tempo reflections to softly, sorrow-fully Chopinesque (like the “Lark” segment) to thundering passages of demonstrable complexity. The musical highlights, too numerous to catalog, include symphonies, concerti, and famed, beloved works such as “Romeo and Juliet,” “Swan Lake,” the “Nutcracker” ballet and “1812 Overture,” each swelling with emotions turbulent and tender.

Felder presents the composer’s personality as mild-mannered and soft-spoken, his surface calm riled only by unduly harsh criticism. The inability (or unwillingness) of his various mentors and those in the press to appreciate or even grasp his music baffled and often infuriated him, and we can only thank our lucky stars he didn’t heed their negative assessments or alter his exquisite creations.

Felder’s innate sense of humor is also apparent – usually whenever Tchaikovsky mimics the rantings of others, such as a teacher’s dismissive waving off of his stated goal to dedicate his life to writing music: “Everyone in Russia thinks he’s a composer!”

Tchaikovsky’s sexual proclivities aside, the show packs tons of historical factual data about his life and times into a compact 105 minutes – and in the hands of a pianist as virtuosic as Felder, the emotional depth and power of Tchaikovsky’s music cannot be denied. As such, “Our Great Tchaikovsky” unquestionably rates as one of Felder’s most dazzling shows.

Christopher Ash’s projections of videos and photographs add historic detail, movement and visual interest to Felder’s elaborate, period-authentic set design. They put the finishing artistic touches to an evening that is, at the least, like a one-man “Tchaikovsky’s greatest works” concert and, at most, a thought-provoking discourse on the uneasy confluence of artistry, sexual orientation and the judgments of, and pressures exerted by, the state.