Saturday, September 23, 2017

Review: BENNY AND JOON, A Breath of Fresh Air for your Musical Senses

Hannah Elless and Bryce Pinkham

The Old Globe has opened a window and let in a beautiful breath of fresh air in its latest world premiere musical, Benny and Joon, by bookwriter Kirsten Guenther, composer Nolan Gasser, and lyricist Mindi Dickstein. Based on the 1993 MGM film starring Johnny Depp, Mary Stuart Masterson and Aidan Quinn, it focuses on three characters, each insulated by their unique circumstances, and how they ultimately overcome their limitations to live the life they’ve always wanted. Love, family, compassion, and understanding are the foundation of the piece and, as they grow, so do we. 

Joon (Hannah Elles) suffers from a form of mental illness that means she hears voices when she’s off her meds. Order is the key to her world and when that order is interrupted, it prompts uncontrollable outbursts, making her a danger to herself and others. Benny (Andrew Samonsky) is the older brother who has taken care of her ever since their parents died in a car accident ten years earlier. A mechanic with plenty of guy friends, but no love life, he dutifully shoulders his responsibility because he loves his sister but he also uses it as a reason not to get close to people. Outside of poker nights with the guys, his world consists of managing interruptions from Joon and little else.

Enter Sam (Bryce Pinkham), the eccentric cousin of one of Benny’s poker buddies, and the catalyst who turns everything upside down. Sam’s unusual way of navigating through life helps Benny and Joon see that sometimes you have to look at the world a little differently in order to make it all work out. He uses humor and classic movie bits to diffuse tension in others and he does it so spontaneously that it works every time.

Bryce Pinkham

The musical’s task is accomplished with a fair amount of whimsy and a sensitive hand by the writers and director Jack Cummings III. They establish it from the get-go, with a paper origami bird, a miniature train, and the promise of a journey slightly askew. The beauty of the opening is that you know immediately what kind of musical you’re going to see and then it follows through and delivers on what it sets up.

All of the film’s best moments are here, several of them staged so sweetly and with such a light touch that they seem to dance, even when there is no musical accompaniment. Some – like Sam’s famous dancing roll scene in the diner and his method of cooking grilled cheese sandwiches with an iron – are set quite effectively to instrumental music. Others receive full-on song development and move the story forward at an accelerated clip while expressing the characters’ inner dialogue in a way not available to their film counterparts. So many of the songs are winners.

Dickstein’s lyrics are rich with insight and Gasser’s melodies capture the vastly different rhythms of each character, a complicated task in any musical but in this one it defines the characters on a whole other level. In “Safety First” we see why Joon feels compelled to stand in the middle of a busy intersection and direct traffic even though it makes her look crazy, and in “In My Head” we begin to understand the real reason Sam is obsessed with the movies. The driving rock inflections in the song express the pounding desperation inside Sam’s head and the escape that celluloid provided from a cruel world.

Hannah Elless and Bryce Pinkham

The choice to have Joon play the ukulele while singing “Happy” perfectly captures the gentle joy she feels in the moment (is there any friendlier sound than a ukulele?) and in the most unconventional of love songs, “It’s a Shame” sung by Joon and Sam, reveals just how perfect for each other these two unusual individuals really are.

On the outside, Joon often seems “normal” and Elless achieves an interesting dichotomy with the character. When she is not completely in control of her surroundings or is showing a softer, more childlike side, Elless still includes Joon’s internal durability, just as when she is exercising her strength of will she also retains her fragility. It is a wonderful play on personality that creates a complex character the audience roots for without hesitation. She is delicate, determined, and delightful.

As Sam, Pinkham takes the Johnny Depp role and reinvents the character into one audiences will talk about for years to come. For that reason alone you need to see the show. He sings beautifully, possesses the kind of comic and physical timing that can’t be taught, and does everything so effortlessly that you want him to repeat every scene again and again. Whether he’s rolling in on skates and pushing a kitchen cabinet or dancing with a mop, defending the rights of Baked Alaska or summoning up the courage to get a job, he is the imaginative link that fuels the show. Pinkham’s progression from insecure to confident in a single song (“I Can Help”) is a showstopper and his onstage chemistry with Elless is immediate. It is a darling performance, never precious, and so memorable there are sure to be award bells ringing in the future for the actor.

Jason SweetTooth Williams and Bryce Pinkham

In the category of things that need rethinking: Benny’s translation from film to stage doesn’t yet work. In the movie, it was always clear that Benny’s love for Joon was more important than anything else. Even at his most frustrated point, Aidan Quinn’s sincerity allowed the audience to remain sympathetic to him. Here, Benny turns into a phenomenal jerk when the conflict is highest and Samonsky hits the beat so viciously that he isn’t able to recover from alienating the audience, even with a song that explains his actions after the fact. Of course the frustrations he lets out in his tirade toward June are legitimate but it’s a fine line that still needs to be tuned.

That, coupled with a lack of chemistry between he and Ruthie (January LaVoy) and LaVoy’s lackluster performance, makes this couple fizzle out before they even begin. She is the weak vocal link in an otherwise strong vocal ensemble. Without a more believable attraction, this secondary romantic storyline falls flat. 

The supporting characters are also trying hard to make as much of their short stage time as possible but some of their performances come off as forced. Scenes with Dr. Cruz (Natalie Toro), in particular, could benefit from significant cutting. Her advice song “There Is No Secret” feels like it is inserted just to give her a solo and that’s not a good enough reason. Make the point in short dialogue and move on rather than turning it into a downer orchid sequence that may have looked good on paper but doesn’t translate well to the stage. The office scene and song “Wonder” is also too drawn out to hold our interest, and a reprise of the song sung by the doctor is an unnecessary comment.

Hannah Elless and Andrew Samonsky

The crux of the show is the relationship between Benny and Joon and Sam. When the focus stays on them the musical’s inherent sweetness blossoms and, when it doesn’t, it fades.

Dane Laffrey’s primary set piece – a Google Earth-inspired map of Benny and Joon’s neighborhood – is a sleek and dramatic way to represent how the orderly appearance of a thing may not tell the whole story. There are times the three dimensional backdrop even resembles a storybook pop-up or a board game with the players all advancing according to the roll of the dice – two steps forward, one step back. A rolling track in the floor allows for the smooth transition of furniture and other items that set the individual scenes. Once you accept the repetitive device, you see how effectively it solves the question of how to cut quickly between many different locations.

R. Lee Kennedy’s lighting lends intimacy as it creates the parameters of each space in the absence of actual walls. A breathtaking reveal late in the show takes the visual representation of freedom to a new level. The creative team’s thoughtful use of color, order, and function works for the kind of story being told. It should feel unexpected and it does.

Regardless of our circumstances, we're all in search of a happy ending. Benny and Joon is a quirky new musical that will make you believe a happy ending is possible no matter what stands in your way. Fresh, inventive, and full of charm, it's a feel-good musical that will warm your heart.  

September 7 – October 22, 2017
The Old Globe
1363 Old Globe Way in Balboa Park
San Diego, CA

L-R: Paolo Montalban, Jason SweetTooth Williams, Colin Hanlon, Andrew Samonsky,
Hannah Elless and Bryce Pinkham

Hannah Elless

January LaVoy, Andrew Samonsky, Bryce Pinkham and Hannah Elless

January LaVoy, Andrew Samonsky, Bryce Pinkham and Hannah Elless

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Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Photo Flash: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Norris Theatre

Ian Littleworth and the Company. All photos by Ed Krieger

The Palos Verdes Performing Arts production of Rachel Sheinkin and William Finn’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is directed by Richard Israel and features musical direction by Sean Alexander Bart and choreography by Daniel Smith. With a lovable cast of quirky characters and guest spellers from the audience during each performance, this hilarious musical instantly spells fun. Now through October 1st at Norris Theatre, 27570 Norris Center Drive on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. Tickets:

Hajin Cho, Chris Bona, Jacob Nye, Gabriela Milo, Ian Littleworth and Tayler Mettra

Jacob Nye and the Company

The Company of 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Jacob Nye and the Company

Tayler Mettra, Jacob Nye and Gabriela Milo

Chris Bona and Company

Kelsey Venter, Tayler Mettra and Donovan Wright

Kelsey Venter, Erik Gratton and Jacob Nye

Jacob Nye and the Company

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Thursday, August 31, 2017

Review: The Pure Joy of MUSE-IQUE’s Summer of Sound: GLOW/TOWN

Savion Glover and Joshua Henry. All photos by Ben Gibbs

It’s official. I have a new favorite thing, and it is called Muse/ique. You would too if you’d been in the audience for GLOW/TOWN, the third in a 3-part series celebrating Motown and its roots Saturday night at Caltech. From the structure of the program to the sophistication of the environment, Artistic Director Rachael Worby and company have created a musical experience in a class by itself.

Staged outdoors in a completely made up space on the lawn of Beckman Auditorium, Muse/ique is the epitome of smart entertainment. It reaches the senses on multiple levels, appealing to the intellect as well as the heart, while engaging the audience in the pure joy of the music. In this setting, any preconceived notions or stodgy expectations get blown apart. The party is written in the music and it moves you from the inside out. All you have to do is show up.

This summer, Muse/ique’s series explored the road to Motown and what it represents in the fabric of America. The two earlier concerts looked at Motown’s connection to Latin rhythms and movement, and the evolution of Gospel music and its impact on Detroit in the sixties. In GLOW/TOWN, Worby connected all the dots by shining a breathtaking spotlight on the essential musical forms that ultimately manifested in Berry Gordy’s Motown Sound: jazz, blues, soul, and early rock ‘n roll, with a bit of pop thrown in for good measure.

Savion Glover (left) and Joshua Henry (right) with Rachael Worby
(center) and the Muse/ique Orchestra

She is incredibly effective as a guide, both conducting the orchestra and also sharing the music’s back story. Using well-chosen, often little-known, gems of information, Worby can unlock a piece and create an enticing context for the listener whether or not they have any prior knowledge of the music. It is one of Muse/ique’s most intriguing elements. She also knows how to stack the deck when it comes to special guests.

On this particular night, Hamilton fans had to make do with seeing his understudy on stage because Joshua Henry, currently starring as Aaron Burr at the Pantages, was one of two featured artists performing with Muse/ique. The other was tap phenom Savion Glover, considered the best tap dancer in the world by...well....everyone. And rightfully so. Sparks flew as these two remarkable musicians gave their heart and soul to the rhythm and the music, forging a bond between audience and artist that can only be achieved in a live performance setting.

Joshua Henry

It didn’t matter in which style he was singing, Henry burned up the mic in all of them. His version of Bricusse and Newley’s “Feeling Good” recalled the depth, danger, and defiance no one has been able to replicate since Nina Simone recorded it in 1965. He slipped into the soul shoes of Reverend Al Green for “Love and Happiness” and an infectious love groove culminating in a call and repeat with Glover that reverberated absolute joy with every pass back and forth. Please let a recording of the duo performing that song emerge because it was sensational.

They pulled off the same magic during the tribute section to Thelonious Monk (“Round Midnight” and “Misterioso”), Glover dueting first with the clarinet in a laid back rhythm, whisper soft, both musicians completely simpatico. Then the orchestra turned sexy, Glover hit on an acapella ripple effect in his footwork, and began a playful volley back and forth with Henry, who displayed some fierce scatting on Alan Steinberger’s arrangement. By the way, all of Steinberger’s arrangements are outstanding.

Henry continued to build the night’s momentum through Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” into the main Motown set, making it hard to imagine there is anything he can’t do vocally. He has a powerhouse set of pipes and the charisma of a comet. From the smooth groove of Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy, Mercy Me” to the wailing wonder he let loose on The Miracles’ “Please Don’t Leave Me Girl” to the joy he imbued in The Temptations’ extraordinary hit, “My Girl,” it was electric. By the time he reached Stevie Wonder’s “For Once in my Life,” the night had turned into one big dance party with audience members unable to sit still any longer. Yes, we were all in the aisles.

And always there was Glover, moving in and out of program, displaying the rapturous kinship between his body and the rhythm. Tapping in counterpoint with the upright bass during Duke Ellington’s “Giggling Rapids” from The River Suite was as thrilling a jazz expression as any purely instrumental version you’ve ever heard. Worby later surprised Glover with a video clip of a “tap off” he’d had with Jerry Lewis during Jerry’s MDA Telethon twenty years ago, adding an endearing wink to a night packed with brilliance.

Another highlight of the evening was the world premiere of Jed Feuer’s orchestral piece “Harambe” which means “all pull together” in Swahili. As prelude, Worby talked about how live music has the distinct power to pull us all together. Listening to his piece, you could feel Feuers vision. From the first poignant notes of the strings to the surging epic quality of its melodic themes, it was a gorgeous display of harmony in motion. The oboe solo, the violins, the way it made me think of living in Boulder and listening to Rifkin on Pearl Street so many years ago… if music can achieve peace in the world, this is the kind of composition to facilitate it.

Muse/ique packed so much sexy, civilized, and stimulating artistry into the night that the 90-minute program literally flew by. You know those times you check your watch during a lull in a performance to see how much is left? There was none of that going on here -- only a sea of people wrapped in the sheer joy of the music.

Muse/ique’s Summer of Sound may have ended but you can experience the unique style of Muse/ique this fall with their Uncorked Series (Tagline: A traveling party. Unconventional spaces. Fearless artists.)

The first concert takes place on October 15th and is called ROCK/ANTHEM featuring iconic songs and the FREEDOM of togetherness. On November 12th, it’s FANCY/FREE, a celebration of Leonard Bernstein’s 100th and the FREEDOM of music. Tickets will be available shortly on their website at After seeing what they did with Summer of Sound, you can bet my calendar is already set. 

Heres a taste of what you missed.

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Sunday, August 20, 2017

CASA 0101 To Remount Aladdin, Dual Language Edition at LATC

L-R: Daniel Sugimoto (Aladdin), Sarah Kennedy (Princess Jazmín) and Lewis Powell III (Genie)

CASA 0101’s production, Disney’s Aladdin, Dual Language Edition/Edición De Lenguaje Dual, was so popular during its initial run earlier this year that the company is bringing it back for another two weeks at Los Angeles Theatre Center, September 8 – 15. This is a newly expanded version of the family friendly musical based on Disney’s 1992 Academy Award-winning film, Aladdin. Set in the fictional Middle Eastern city of Agrabah, beloved princess Jazmín finds true love with a commoner named Aladdin with the help a bigger than life Genie and his Magic Carpet. 2017 marks the historic 25th Anniversary of the Disney film.

Rigo Tejeda returns to direct and says, “We are very excited about the remount of our production of Disney’s Aladdin, Dual Language Edition/Edición De Lenguaje Dual. We will have a much larger stage at the Los Angeles Theatre Center with a cast of 25 led by Daniel Sugimoto, our newly cast Aladdin, and a new set designed by Marco De Leon. Audiences will be blown away by our new special effects, including The Magic Carpet and other special surprises.”

Ken Cerniglia, dramaturg and lterary manager for Disney Theatrical Productions adds, “Our dramaturgical mission…was to weave two languages into the plot while making sure that both English-speaking and Spanish-speaking audiences could follow the story. We hewed closely to the text and structure of Disney’s Aladdin JR., adapted for the stage by Bryan Louiselle and Jim Luigs, but amplified the show with a new back-story.”

Featured in the cast are Daniel Sugimoto as Aladdin, Valeria Maldonado and Sarah Kennedy alternating as Princess Jazmín, Finley Polynice and Lewis Powell III (Genie), Omar Mata and Luis Marquez (Jafar), Andrew Cano and Luis Fernandez-Gil (Iago), Evan Garcia (Razú), Henry Madrid (Sultán), Sebastian Gonzalez (Abu), Rosa Navarrete (Rajah), Danielle Espinoza (Magic Carpet). The three Royal Translators are Blanca Espinoza, Shanara Sanders, and Beatriz Tash, and the ensemble includes Jocelyn Sanchez, Andrew Cano, Abigail “Abey” Somera, Andrea Somera, Jesse Maldonado, Alejandro Lechuga, Bryant Melton, Monica Beld, and Andrew Allen.

Lewis Powell III (Genie), Valeria Maldonado (Princess Jazmín), Councilmember
Gil Cedillo and Daniel Sugimoto (Aladdin)

Aladdin is a co-presentation by Los Angeles City Councilmember Gil Cedillo and TNH Productions, in association with El Centro Del Pueblo and CASA 0101 Theater. It features book by Jim Luigs and José Cruz González, music by Alan Menken, and lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice. Music is adapted, arranged and orchestrated by Bryan Louiselle, with lyric translations by Walterio Pezqueira.

The 80-minute production is presented without an intermission.

Aladdin, Dual Language Edition/Edición De Lenguaje Dual
September 8 – 15, 2017
Los Angeles Theatre Center, 
514 South Spring Street
Los Angeles, CA  90013
Tickets: (866) 811-4111, or

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Monday, August 14, 2017

Review: Mending Hearts and Making Music at the HONKY TONK LAUNDRY

L-R: Misty Cotton and Bets Malone. All photos by Michael Lamont

Bets Malone and Misty Cotton belt their way through this lightweight country and western musical two-hander by Roger Bean – creator of the popular Marvelous Wonderettes musicals and Life Could Be a Dream – and prove that female friendship wins over bad lovers any day of the week. The G-rated jaunt visits typical country storytelling territory where men are cheats and women help each other pick up the pieces, with plenty of singing and countrified self-help catchphrases to put it all into comic perspective.  

The score is a mash-up of songs from many decades of the country catalog (plus one original song by Bean and Adam McPherson, “I Wish That I Could Yodel”). Some are classic hits like D-I-V-O-R-C-E, originally sung by Tammy Wynette, Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces,” and Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin.’ Most of the rest fit into a genre of girl power country songs that came out of the late ‘80s,‘90s and beyond from artists like Martina McBride (“Independence Day”), Reba McEntire (“Take It Back”), Sara Evans (“Born to Fly”), and the Dixie Chicks (“Long Time Gone,” and “Wide Open Spaces”). Cotton and Malone funnel their characters’ emotions through the vocal wringer on all of them, often with hilarious results. Cotton’s intensity -- she's wound tighter than a drum for most of the show -- has the audience repeatedly in stitches while Malone’s blunt, unpretentious sincerity is a whole other kind of funny.

Laid back laundromat owner Lana Mae (Malone) meets uptight Katie Lane (Cotton) when she puts up a Help Wanted sign and Katie ducks in to her establishment after a run-in with her cheating ex. Act One reveals how the two bond over love gone wrong while sharing intimate details of their lives. In Act Two, they reclaim control of their destinies, and Lana Mae’s dream of becoming a country music singer, by turning her Wishy Washy Washateria into the hottest Honky Tonk stage in town.

L-R: Misty Cotton and Bets Malone

Bean’s book is appropriately hokey, with predictable outcomes that leave the audience on a rousing high, but there are times the show needs to shake its cliché-ridden writing or risk feeling dated. Billed as a new musical, it was originally written about a dozen years ago and was first produced at Milwaukee Repertory in 2005. A more recent update of the show played Vista’s Broadway Theatre earlier this year.

Both the full-blown stage show in the second act and its earlier first act set-up share a likable goofiness and folksy charm. Comic bits with audience participation work well in the Hudson’s intimate theater configuration as does James Vásquez’s classic country and western choreography. Bean’s staging is active and well-calibrated for both the space and the needs of the characters.

The Washateria is a retro-inspired dream of a set by Tom Buderwitz, who transforms the functional space into a performance venue with numerous quirky touches. Renetta Lloyd’s costumes and Byron Batista’s hair and makeup reflect each woman’s unique personality; Lana Mae’s tending toward a tastefully tacky blend of big jewelry, big hair, and big prints, and Katie’s expressed in simpler styles with more juvenile prints and less makeup. Their glammed up red leather show costumes are right on the money for the big finish.

L-R: Bets Malone and Misty Cotton

Lighting designer Steven Young pulls out some surprising creative effects, including a full night sky of fireflies and stage lighting that emanates from within the washers, dryers and shelves. Cricket Myers’ sound design is bright and balanced but the sound engineer could bring the volume down a click or two. So much nasal belting can be overwhelming in the course of two hours, especially when the actors need to hit the belt just right on the attack or risk going flat. The musical ends rather abruptly at the completion of the floor show and although it is a natural place for the audience to break into applause, I would have liked to see one final scene after their big night that wraps the whole production together.

In any case, Honky Tonk Laundry is an appealing production featuring two stars of the Southern California musical theatre scene at their best. So grab your boots and head on down to Hollywood for an empowering girls’ night out at the theatre, country style. Hubs can get his own beer ‘cause you’re done doin’ laundry tonight.

Bets Malone and Misty Cotton

August 5 – Sept 17, 2017
Hudson Theatre
6539 Santa Monica Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90038 
Friday and Saturday at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm & 7pm 
More Info:

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Sunday, July 30, 2017

Film Review: Backstage Antics Abound in OPENING NIGHT

Topher Grace. Photos courtesy of Wolfe Video

Every theatre production comes with its share of backstage drama. One Hit Wonderland, the Broadway musical comedy depicted in Gary De Leon and Greg Lisi’s indie film Opening Night is no exception. Sex, drugs, and crazy characters collide in this rousing tongue-in-cheek comedy full of splashy production numbers and entertainment in-jokes. It’s a movie for, and about, theatre people – their quirks, their insecurities, and above all, their passions. No one escapes unscathed; not the aging leading lady (Anne Heche as Brooke), the over-the-top chorus boys (including Taye Diggs), the foul-mouthed producer (Rob Riggle), or the bitchy bombshell (Lesli Margherita).

Topher Grace (funnier than ever) stars as Nick, an actor who choked in his Broadway debut a year ago and now works as the stage manager for One Hit Wonderland, a jukebox musical based on a series of Top 40 pop songs that were the only hit for the groups that recorded them. His deadpan responses to everyone’s ridiculous problems keeps them all in check but the task proves more difficult when he finds out the leading man (JC Chasez in a priceless parody of himself) has made a play for Chloe, Brooke’s understudy and his former girlfriend (Alona Tal), for whom he still has feelings.

JC Chasez

When Brooke gets knocked out by a giant chopstick, Chloe is thrust into the spotlight and finds that fame isn’t quite what she thought it would be, while Nick gets one more shot to drop his cynicism and go for what he truly wants.

Music video director Isaac Rentz brings a stylish cool factor to the storytelling in his feature film debut. He magnifies the humor by focusing on the offbeat nature of the characters in a realistic way, which heightens the absurdity of their actions. Plus, you get to see some bona fide Broadway babies like sexpot Lesli Margherita (Matilda The Musical) and a fierce Taye Diggs (Rent, Hedwig and the Angry Inch) in all their triple threat glory.

Theatre people will eat it up.

Taye Diggs (center)

Anne Heche

JC Chasez and girls

JC Chasez (center) and cast

The 83-minute R-rated film is set to release August 1st on DVD in the U.S. via Wolfe Video.

Directed by: Isaac Rentz
Produced by: Alex Garcia, Topher Grace, Daniel Posada, Jason Tamasco
Written by: Gerry De Leon, Greg Lisi
Starring: Topher Grace, Anne Heche, Alona Tal, JC Chasez, Lauren Lapkus, Taye Diggs, Paul Scheer, Rob Riggle, Brian Husky, Lesli Margherita
More Info: WolfeVideo

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Sunday, July 23, 2017

Review: The Exceptional Artistry of Hershey Felder's OUR GREAT TCHAIKOVSKY

Photos courtesy of Hershey Felder Presents

I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that this is the first
Hershey Felder performance I have attended, given the popularity of his productions and the number of original works he has produced in the last twenty years. Known for his impeccable theatrical portraits of famous composers, Felder uses his abilities as a concert pianist, composer, playwright, and actor to showcase both the artist and the man in a uniquely devised solo presentation.

The result is a hybrid genre all its own, and the consistently sold-out houses to which he plays proves that demand has only grown for his kind of theatre. George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Franz Liszt, and Leonard Bernstein have all been subjects of Felder’s exploration. Now Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) takes his turn in the spotlight as Felder presents what may be his most important and topical story to date.

Tchaikovsky was gay (though closeted), and that put him in a dangerous position living in 19th century Russia under a government regime that considered homosexual behavior to be deviant. It was a death sentence if you were found out. Many were banished to Siberia or outright killed. The sad fact is, while Tchaikovsky was a musical genius who would compose some of our greatest classical works, he lived in constant fear his entire life.

Russia’s complicated relationship with homosexuality continues, even today. Every other week another story emerges of the horrible treatment LGBT individuals are subjected to, and that is what makes Our Great Tchaikovsky such a thought-provoking piece at this time in history. As the world rises up in defense of all individuals, regardless of sexual orientation, the responsibility to champion human dignity at its most basic level becomes paramount.

For Tchaikovsky, living in the shadows meant pouring all of his love, longing, and despair into his music. Essentially, he composed his emotions and gave us brilliant works like Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, Eugene Onegin, and Symphony No. 6 (Pathétique). Nine days after he premiered the Pathétique, he died. Cholera was the official report but rumors of a forced suicide arose and to this day the exact cause of death has never been confirmed.

Felder begins the piece by breaking the fourth wall and relating a true story about an invitation he received from Russian producers to bring his performance of their great composer to Russia. He reads from the letter and asks the audience whether or not he should go. It’s a simple question but the Russian government still considers the topic illegal (and is even going so far as to rewrite history by declaring Tchaikovsky wasn’t gay) which means Felder’s own life could be at risk for even performing it publicly.

With that thought lingering in the air, Felder morphs into the composer and begins to relate stories, tying them to his music and performing passages on a gorgeous Steinway grand piano that richly express Felder’s own sensitivity as an artist as well as Tchaikovsky’s.

One can see that his performance has been constructed with great respect for the Russian composer. An underlying elegance is woven into both the narrative structure and the visual storytelling that surrounds Felder throughout the piece.

Imagery of Tchaikovsky’s homeland softly comes into focus and then quietly transitions like virtual memories unspooling in the background. The face in a suspended picture frame also changes as the various significant figures in his life are discussed. These projections, and the lighting that so beautifully captures the depth of the composer’s emotions, is the work of Christopher Ash.

Felder has designed the scenery and, whether it was intentional or not, I couldn’t help but notice how the furnishings epitomized the weight of the era with their dark woods and heavy textures. In contrast, the piano center stage seemed to float between the two interiors with an entirely different and significantly lighter energy, functioning as a kind of respite from the reality of the world. It’s subtle stage magic and perhaps I’m reading too much into it but I was fascinated by the effect created by light, texture, and tone. Trevor Hay’s direction is seamless in its shifts from humor to beauty to pain.

Our Great Tchaikovsky’s run has already been extended a week longer than originally scheduled at The Wallis, due to high demand for tickets. I’m not surprised. The artistic consideration that has gone into the piece, together with Felder’s personal storytelling style, makes it an incredibly satisfying and tragically enlightening experience.

Those who go to the theatre looking for a great story will find one here. For the classically inclined, Felder’s mastery at the piano will remind you why you love the music. And if you’re in search of art with a message that matters, this is your ticket. There is a reason Hershey Felder’s name pops up repeatedly on theater marquees all over Los Angeles. He’s that good.

July 19 – August 13, 2017
Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd.
Beverly Hills, CA 90210
(located between Canon and Crescent)
Click Here for directions and parking.

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