This is a musical, but not one you might expect. Taking place in the disturbed mind of Sergei Rachmaninov during a period of writer’s block, it take the form of a series of brief encounters: appropriate when you consider the use of his No. 2 concerto in the classic 1940s film of that name.

Preludes harks back to the piano piece which made the composer’s name when he was just nineteen; when the whole world seemed open to him. But fame does not bring deity or immortality, as we will see as we follow the plot of this sometimes beautiful, sometimes frustrating, show.

Poster image for Preludes
Poster image for Preludes

The music, which uses original pieces by Dave Malloy alongside, and meshed with, the works of the great Russian composer, is largely electronic and sometimes a chore to experience. The set (designed by Rebecca Brower) resembles a raised stage, but some of the gleaming black floor tiles have been ripped or clawed up, adding to the sense of unease.

The lighting (by Christopher Nairne) only really comes into its own during act two, when Rachmaninov crouches at the base of the stairs in the audience as his opera star dons biker leathers and a blood-red cloak to evoke a heavy metal influenced devil, accompanied by flashes, strobes and washes of red light. Another striking piece of lighting comes later when a drunken conductor reduces a sublime symphony to ridicule.

The set for Preludes
The set for Preludes

Georgia Louise, Rebecca Caine, Tom Noyes, Steven Serlin, Norton James and Keith Ramsay display beautiful singing voices and harmonies when the electronics are stripped back and moments of lucidity take place: at a marriage, during a period of hypnosis. I longed for more of this.

With the topic of mental health in the arts remaining a very current concern, the time is certainly right for Preludes to take to the UK stage, and it is a brave and non-confirming production; however I found the staring and physical ticks of Ramsay’s Rachmaninov did not always convince, nor the use of modern references and turns of phrase. The use of a pianist ‘double’ for the composer’s troubled psyche was effective, and sometimes moving.

Keith Ramsay and Rebecca Caine in rehearsal.
Keith Ramsay and Rebecca Caine in rehearsal.

Malloy and director Alex Sutton bring quick sketches of the characters of Chekhov, Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky and Tsar Nicholas to the piece, as these “great men” interact with the fractured mind of a composer who enumerates each hour he is awake and refrains from the act of creating his next work.

Preludes is certainly not for everyone, but with on-stage sound technicians, a dreamlike state, and more than a sprinkle of chutzpah, it has moments of true emotional power, and does its best to subvert an audience’s expectation of what musical theatre could and should be.

I viewed a preview performance of Preludes, which continues at the Southwark Playhouse. Rehearsal photo by Scott Rylander.

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