By James Hebert
“We invite you to bring him home to us.”
Those words, which carry both warmth and a lingering note of warning, capture the conflict at the heart of “Our Great Tchaikovsky,” Hershey Felder’s potent new solo ode to the great Russian composer.
The phrase comes from an actual letter the Russian government sent Felder not long ago, urging the writer-composer-actor-pianist — who’s renowned for his string of one-man shows about musical masters — to consider honoring Tchaikovsky in the country of his birth.
But where, really, is home for the composer of “Swan Lake,” “The Nutcracker,” the “1812 Overture” and other unforgettable works? Is it his native land, where he spent a lifetime in mortal fear of his homosexuality being revealed — and where to this day intolerance of LGBT people continues?
Or is it in the hearts and minds of those who love his music?
That’s the implicit question Felder sets up in this world-premiere piece, getting a polished and visually rich production under Trevor Hay’s direction at San Diego Rep (where it already has set a box-office record).
Felder’s reading of the letter at the top of the show — as himself, before slipping into the character of Tchaikovsky — serves as an effective entree to this bio-musical because it sets up the stakes involved.
And not just for Tchaikovsky: As Felder notes in the show, Russian law against pro-gay “propaganda” means he conceivably could be jailed there for performing the show. (Russia’s culture minister, by the way, has stated categorically that Tchaikovsky was not gay, contrary to the consensus of historians).
That very timely political element of the show could have become strident, but Felder finds an admirable balance, telling Tchaikovsky’s story with humor and insight but never quite letting us forget what the subject of his play faced.
And of course it helps that the Canadian-born, globetrotting Felder, who has done numerous shows here (and keeps a production base in San Diego), can play a little piano. His virtuoso touch brings beautiful life to Tchaikovsky’s intricate and often bittersweet compositions.
Felder’s supple rendition of selections from “The Nutcracker” shows a sure sense of dynamics (both sonic and emotional). His rousing, beyond-boisterous performance of the “1812 Overture,” on the other hand, is like an athletic event — fitting, since it comes not long after a present-day anecdote involving the 2014 Sochi Olympics and Russian leader Vladimir Putin. (Speaking of timely.)
As is his style, Felder also weaves astute observations into his performance, as when he demonstrates (in character as Tchaikovsky) how substituting an unexpected note in a simple arpeggio raises a work such as “The Lark” to the level of its subject.
An ordinary arpeggio, he explains, is too perfect: “In nature, there is perfection in imperfection.”
In a stirring moment near show’s end, he again finds a connection between music and life, describing Tchaikovsky’s fear that, like the gorgeously mournful adagio that concludes his Sixth Symphony (the “Pathétique”), he and others who have had to suppress their true selves “will simply fade away.”
As he touches on events from Tchaikovsky’s life — his strict upbringing, his disastrous marriage, his long-distance bond with the key patron Nadezhda von Meck — Felder portrays the composer with a convincing accent and a sometimes brash panache.
Felder also designed the show’s elegant, tree-studded set, attractively lit by Christopher Ash, who also created the stunning projections. Erik Carstensen’s sound design is crisp and ear-pleasing.
A showman to the last, Felder concludes the piece with an image that teeters on the edge of melodrama.
Still, it’s hard to fault a show that brings such a compelling character (and concerns) to such vivid life.