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Felder in sensitive tune in ‘Great Tchaikovsky’

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Hershey Felder portrays the Russian composer in TheatreWorks’ local premiere of “Our Great Tchaikovsky” in Mountain View. (Courtesy Hershey Felder Presents)

We in the Bay Area have had the privilege of seeing only a few of the many solo shows by the extraordinary Canadian-born performer-writer-pianist Hershey Felder, in which he brings to the stage great classical musicians of the past (Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt) and such modern geniuses as George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Leonard Bernstein.

But it’s possible that “Our Great Tchaikovsky,” the year-old work now at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, may be his most moving.

The composer and pianist Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born in 1840 in czarist Russia at a time when homosexuality was taboo — a time not unlike the present day in that country, an unfortunate fact that Felder weaves deftly into the engrossing 105-minute one-man (and multi-character) play.

Felder commands every inch of the expansive stage, sometimes narrating as himself, always with humor and simplicity; sometimes embodying the musician during various stages of his life; sometimes appearing, comically, as several of young Piotr’s idiosyncratic music teachers.

As Felder explains, he chose the musical selections based on the pieces he thought would best tell the tale of the maestro’s life.

The results, which punctuate the story, are endlessly evocative, coming from such well-known masterpieces as “The Nutcracker Suite,” “Swan Lake,” Piano Concerto No. 1 and the “1812 Overture” (which Tchaikovsky composed, on commission, and loathed), among others.

A recorded musical score, too, enhances Felder’s own sublime piano-playing. (Having a seat where you can see his nimble hands on the keyboard is a plus.)

A brief scene in which the eager young student learns how to capture nature through music is particularly enchanting.

Felder also designed the set. The center-stage piano, a few birch trees and ever-changing projections designed by Christopher Ash (on the upstage wall that seem to conjure multidimensional worlds) enrich the show without ever distracting from the story.

And a complex story it is, both exhilarating and disturbing. The great Tchaikovsky was a tortured soul throughout his life, struggling to hide his sexual proclivities for fear of reprisal (Siberia, perhaps) and wracked with guilt.

Music saved him, and Felder, seemingly effortlessly under Trevor Hay’s direction, conveys both the composer’s passion and his torment.

Tchaikovsky died suddenly, in 1893, under mysterious circumstances.

Felder resurrects him here with a finely tuned and compassionate characterization, and it’s a gift.

Our Great Tchaikovsky
Presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Where: Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednedsays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Feb. 11
Tickets: $45 to $105
Contact: (650) 463-1960, www.theatreworks.org

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