Playwright/Performer: Hershey Felder; Music: Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
At: Steppenwolf Theatre Upstairs, 1650 N. Halsted St. Tickets: 312-335-1650 or Steppenwolf.org; $55. Runs through: May 13
Hershey Felder has built up an impressive multi-hyphenated career as a pianist-playwright-performer-composer. From his one-man Broadway show George Gershwin Alone to others like Monsieur Chopin and Beethoven As I Knew Him, Felder has dedicated much of his artistic output to heralding the lives and music of history's great composers.
But with Felder's latest show, Our Great Tchaikovsky, the heterosexual Canadian artist adds to his resume the job title of LGBTQ activist. And it's simply by doing what he has always done.
Our Great Tchaikovsky is now receiving a rich and illuminating Midwest premiere in Steppenwolf's cozy Upstairs Theatre ( just across the street from his usual Chicago home at the Royal George Theatre ). What's so compelling is that Felder is committing an act of political defiance just by performing a stage biography of the iconic and gay Russian composer Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky ( 1840-1893 ).
In 2013, the Russian government passed a globally condemned law banning the spread of "gay propaganda." As a result, Russia's ministry of culture has gone on the offensive to deny the homosexuality of Tchaikovsky ( despite the well-documented proof in his correspondence arguing otherwise ).
From the start of Our Great Tchaikovsky, Felder builds some mystery by appearing as himself rather his usual practice of portraying historical figures. It seems that Felder received a Russian request asking him to turn his attention to dramatizing the life of Tchaikovsky.
Which is what Felder then proceeds to do. Affecting a booming Slavic accent as Tchaikovsky, Felder mixes basic biographical and artistic facts with wowing piano playing of snippets from works ranging from the 1812 Overture to Swan Lake. There's an abundance of humorous anecdotes along the way, ranging from Tchaikovsky's habit of applying pet names to everyone in his life to his amazement at the fanaticism of his American fans.
Through it all, Felder doesn't shy away from from Tchaikovsky's homosexuality and his depressive and "introverted" behavior as a response. Felder also delves into how historians look for details of Tchaikovsky's life in his timeless music, and how biographers are still arguing about the sinister theories behind his premature death.
As written, Felder's Our Great Tchaikovsky would be against the law to perform in Russia today. So that makes the show and Felder's amazing performance all the more vital and relevant.
Our Great Tchaikovsky points out the contradictory ramifications of Tchaikovsky's status as both a national Russian musical hero and a global gay historical icon. Thank heavens for Felder and his efforts to prevent the current Russian regime from trying to push Tchaikovsky posthumously back into the closet.