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Our Great Tchaikovsky

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Entering the Wallis Annenberg’s Bram Goldsmith Theatre for Hershey Felder’s Our Great Tchaikovsky, one is greeted by white birch trees, a few well-chosen pieces of furniture, and a piano. The set, also designed by Felder, conjures the Russian countryside and proves the perfect background for his examination of the life of Russia’s most popular composer, Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

Though Tchaikovsky’s professional life was successful, his personal life was deeply conflicted, and his death has always been a point of debate. This has led to multiple biographical studies, ranging from fusty volumes by music scholars too timid to mention the composer’s sexuality, to Ken Russell’s near hysterical take on the tortured artist trope in his film, The Music Lovers. The Soviets attempted to suppress all proof that their national treasure was homosexual, and Putin’s government has quietly continued this effort to re-write history.

Felder’s well-researched and intelligent script strikes a persuasive middle ground which dramatizes the major events in Tchaikovsky’s life without bowdlerizing or dwelling on salacious rumors. What Felder does, better than anyone I’ve seen, is reveal how Tchaikovsky’s sexuality was central to his creative life. That his feeling of otherness, of distance from a “normal” life, gave him easy accessibility to the emotions which range so freely through his music and have touched audiences so deeply.

Along with the biographical facts, Felder takes to the piano to share a generous taste of Tchaikovsky’s orchestral and ballet scores. Though he mentions the important coincidence between the composer’s heroine in Eugene Onegin and his disastrous marriage, none of Tchaikovsky’s operatic output is used. Perhaps most interesting is Felder’s choice to allow the composer to comment on many of the musical selections. At one point, this allows us a humorous glimpse at Tchaikovsky’s obvious disdain for his lucrative, if artistically unfulfilling, “1812 Overture.” The bombastic ending which Felder pounds out is the musical equivalent of an eye roll.

Under Trevor Hay’s astute direction, Felder creates a memorable three-dimensional portrait of Tchaikovsky, from an impressionable child to the adult whose personality encompassed both the confident musician, as well as the anxious man desperate to hide his love life. He also vividly portrays essential characters in Tchaikovsky’s life, like his teacher, Anton Rubinstein, and his brother, Modest.

I confess to being a late convert to Felder’s composer series. His visit to the Wallis last summer with his Leonard Bernstein show was my introduction to his work. Much as I enjoyed his multi-faceted Bernstein portrayal, Our Great Tchaikovsky is an even stronger dramatic piece. The play feels more personal because Felder chooses to insert himself into the production and bluntly compares Tchaikovsky’s era with the current repression of the LGBT community in Russia.

The production has already extended and is an event that no music or theater lover should miss.

Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts    July 20 – August 13, 2017    thewallis.org/felder

 

Spotlight

Laguna Playhouse Announces Ellen Richard as its Interim Executive Director

May 3, 2016…Laguna Beach, Calif…Laguna Playhouse Board of Directors announced today that, later this month, Ellen Richard will be joining Laguna Playhouse as its Interim Executive Director. The Playhouse announced late last year that it was undertaking a national search guided by Arts Consulting Group (ACG) for an Executive Director to succeed Karen Wood who had held this position for the past eight years.

Commenting on the appointment Joe Hanauer and Paul Singarella, Co-Chairmens of the Board of Directors, said “In the midst of our search we encountered this wonderful opportunity to engage Ellen while we continue to seek appropriate long-term leadership. To have found someone with the extraordinary qualifications that Ellen has is thrilling. She is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer at New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company where she was Managing Director. Ellen also has strong successes in supervising the construction of theatres in New York and also in San Francisco at the American Conservatory Theater, a rare and valuable skill set considering the contemplated major remodel and expansion of the Laguna Playhouse.” Laguna Playhouse Artistic Director Ann E. Wareham adds, “We are pleased and proud to have Ellen Richard, truly a rock-star in our field, join us as our interim Executive Director who will help guide the Playhouse during this transition.” Comments Ellen Richard, “I have quickly grown fond of Laguna Beach and the Playhouse. I embrace this extraordinary opportunity to join one of the country’s top regional theatres at this time in its remarkable 95-year history. I look forward to helping the Playhouse and working with their incredible Board of Trustees and Ann E. Wareham.”

ABOUT ELLEN RICHARD

Ellen Richard served as Executive Director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco from 2010 through 2015.  During her tenure, Ms. Richard negotiated a deal to buy the Strand Theater in tech corridor of Mid-Market San Francisco, helped raise the $34,000 million to renovate and operate it and steered the design and construction for the project which opened in May of 2015. The complex featured two performance spaces and has won multiple awards.  She opened the 50 seat Costume Shop Theater, a 49-seat “black box” venue used for the company’s Master of Fine Arts students and for shows by other local companies.  Ms. Richard was also credited with expanding the company’s educational efforts, coming up with programs like the San Francisco Semester, which brings undergraduate acting students to ACT from around the world, and Stage Coach, a community theater mobile unit that reaches into diverse neighborhoods

She was also Executive Director of The Second Stage Theatre in New York City. During her tenure at Second Stage, which began in 2006 (through 2009), she was responsible for the purchase contract of the Helen Hayes Theatre, growth in subscription income of 48 percent, and growth in individual giving of 75 percent, as well as conceptualization of a highly successful gala format and “Second Generation,” a giving program through which donors enable deserving New York City youth to experience live theater. Under Ms. Richard’s leadership, Second Stage provided the initial home for the Broadway productions Everyday Rapture, Next to Normal, and The Little Dog Laughed.

From 1983 to 2005, Ms. Richard enjoyed a rich and varied career with Roundabout Theatre Company. The Roundabout that Ms. Richard joined was a small nonprofit theater company in bankruptcy. By the time she departed as Managing Director, Roundabout had become one of the country’s largest and most successful theater companies of its kind, with net assets in excess of $67 million dollars. Ms. Richard is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer, for Roundabout productions of Cabaret (1998), A View from the Bridge (1998), Side Man (1999), Nine (2003), Assassins (2004), and Glengarry Glen Ross (2005). As producer of more than 125 shows at Roundabout, she had direct supervision of all management and marketing functions. She created Roundabout’s “Theatre-PLUS” programs, which include singles, teachers, family, gay and lesbian, wine tasting, and the 7 p.m. “Early Curtain” series, all of which grew to represent more than 10 percent of Roundabout’s 40,000 subscribers.

As director of design and construction at Roundabout, Ms. Richard was responsible for more than $50 million of theater construction for 11 projects. She conceptualized the three permanent Roundabout stages — The Broadway venues of Studio 54 and the American Airlines Theatre, and the Off-Broadway venue The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre She directed the location search for Cabaret and oversaw the creation of the production’s environmental Kit Kat Klub. Prior to her tenure at Roundabout, Ms. Richard served as business manager of Westport Country Playhouse, theater manager for Stamford Center for the Arts, and business manager for Atlas Scenic Studio. She began her career working as a stagehand, sound designer, and scenic artist assistant.