Sergei Rachmaninoff is one of the greatest pianists of all time and one of the most outstanding melodists amongst composers.
After the disastrous premiere of his first symphony, in 1900, the young Russian composer suffers from depression and writer's block. After three years, he begins daily sessions with a therapeutic hypnotist, in an effort to overcome depression and return to composing.
Preludes, written and composed by Dave Malloy, is described as a musical fantasia set in the hypnotised mind of Sergei Rachmaninoff. In fact, the narration it is not linear: we go from Rach’s hypnotherapy sessions to some dialogues with his girlfriend, to numerous encounters with famous artists; by doing so, the show loses its focus, and we do the same.
The supporting characters. Tchaikovsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov go in and out too quickly, and it might be a bit confusing, especially because they are played by the same actor (Steven Serlin)
But, most of all, Preludes suffers from an excessive level of abstraction. It becomes very taxing for the audience to follow the tormented psychology of this character as dialogues don’t seem to reveal anything significant about his wounded ambition and his deeper sense of dissatisfaction with himself, especially in the first act. They are repetitive, insubstantial, they lack punch and humour, and so do the songs, which lift us out of the grey and black tones of the scenes momentarily but never really take flight and certainly don’t surprise us or take the story anywhere new; they are more like musical vignettes, interesting and often challenging in texture and lyrics, but which don’t seem to serve a real purpose in the story. The tension and emotional tones of the piece are the same throughout and this creates a feeling of claustrophobia which, despite doing justice to the character’s mind at length becomes alienating and heavy to watch. Specificity and humour could maybe save this show, but they are well hidden in both dialogues and songs.
There are many things to admire in this show: Keith Ramsay is a convincing disturbed young Rach; Georgia Louise is Natalya, Rach’s cousin and fiancée, while Rebecca Caine is the hypnotherapist; Norton James brings moments of insight and humor as Rachmaninoff’s friend. Ste Clough contributed some intense choreography, while the set, designed by Rebecca Brower is a perfect mix of antique and contemporary. The lighting, designed by Christopher Nairne, is spectacular.
If you are looking for an unusual musical, different from anything you have seen before, you will certainly enjoy Preludes.
It runs until 12 October
Photo: Scott Rylander