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Tchaikovsky: None But The Lonely Heart

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - May 31, 2018

Joey Slotnick
Photo by Shirin Tinati

If you are familiar with Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, you will already know that in nineteenth century Russia they wrote letters. And, indeed, such an exchange of correspondence serves as the dramatic core of the Ensemble for the Romantic Century's latest and most musically-centered production, Tchaikovsky: None But The Lonely Heart, opening tonight at the Pershing Square Signature Center.

The letters, read aloud by two fine actors, Joey Slotnick as Tchaikovsky and Shorey Walker as his long-time patron and financial supporter Nadezhda von Meck, chronicle the relationship between the pair over more than a decade. They were an odd couple of platonic soul mates who, at the reclusive von Meck's insistence, never once met. "It is," she wrote, "a similarity of opinion and feelings which brings people together. I prefer to think of you at a distance."

The social decorum afforded by their physical separation seems for a long time to have freed both to move beyond discussions of music and into the realm of their personal lives. The unhappily married composer and the widowed mother of 11 who calls herself an "irreconcilable enemy of marriage" write openly about their respective matrimonial and other woes. Whether von Meck, Tchaikovsky's "invisible angel," was fully aware of the composer's homosexuality is unclear here. However, in separate letters to his brother, he agonizes at length over the likely repercussions to his reputation should his "secret" become public knowledge. Regardless, his friendship with von Meck continues for nearly 14 years, until she abruptly breaks off contact, presumably at her family's behest.

By focusing on the composer, the Ensemble for the Romantic Century and its executive artistic director Eve Wolf come as close as they have in their three productions this season at successfully realizing a creative mission of bringing together multiple art forms into a singular dramatic concert format. As she has done previously, Ms. Wolf draws on first-hand accounts from letters, diaries, and memoirs of her subjects. The two earlier productions this year, one about Vincent van Gogh and the other about Mary Shelley and her famous novel "Frankenstein," suffered from being overly ambitious and overwrought. While they attempted to make appropriate period music their centerpieces, the concept of an enhanced concert was nearly subsumed by an impressive but overly distracting array of projections, sound design, art, and dance that never quite coalesced.

Here, however, there are several factors that serve this production well. First, it is being staged in the intimate space of the Signature Center's Ford Foundation Studio Theatre, which fortunately curtails the company's tendency to overdo things, as happened previously in the much larger theaters at the venue. Second, both Mr. Slotnick and Ms. Walker handle their roles with charm, grace, and flair, even when his character is on a rant about his personal life and hers goes into rhapsodic flights about what his music means to her.

More importantly, they both lean in and listen most attentively to the interspersed performances of Tchaikovsky's music by a first-rate trio at center stage: Ji on piano, Stephanie Zyzak on violin, and, especially, Ari Evan, a cellist whose joy in the music fills the theater space and draws us in as well. The musicians are given a generous amount of time to display their considerable talents. They are joined in some of the pieces by tenor Adrian Kramer and by dancer Daniel Mantei, who unfortunately is stymied by the postage-stamp area that provides little room for movement. Credit Vanessa James for a set design that nicely divides the space between the composer and his patron, and for the lovely array of costumes, heavier and darker when everyone is in Moscow, and softer and brighter when they are in the country.

Tchaikovsky: None But The Lonely Heart
Through June 17
The Studio Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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