Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Preludes ***

The creative team that brought us Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 — author/composer Dave Malloy, director Rachel Chavkin, set designer Mimi Lien, costume designer Paloma Young, lighting designer Bradley King, sound designer Matt Hubbs and music director Or Matias — have reunited at LCT3's Claire Tow Theater for another production based on Russian history. In 1900 the 27-year-old composer Sergei Rachmaninoff consulted a Moscow hypnotherapist, Nikolai Dahl, for a cure to the three-year writer’s block that followed the poor reception of his first symphony. Their daily sessions were successful and Rachmaninoff returned to composition in a blaze of glory with his Second Piano Concerto. Malloy and Chavkin have taken this incident as the basis of their new musical. There are interesting embellishments. The character of the composer has been divided between two actors, Rach (the wonderful Gabriel Ebert) and Rachmaninoff the pianist (Or Matias). Dahl, with a change of gender that opens more musical possibilities, is charmingly portrayed by Eisa Davis. The composer’s fiancee Natalya is played by Nikki M. James, whose voice is glorious. The play’s conceit that opera star Chaliapin (well played and sung by Joseph Keckler) is the composer’s close friend adds a sonorous Russian bass to the mix. We also meet Chekhov, Tchaikovsky, Tolstoy, Glazunov and Tsar Nicholas II, all played with √©lan by Chris Sarandon. The music includes pure Rachmaninoff, adaptations by Malloy, original songs by Malloy, and a dash of Bach, Beethoven and Mussorgsky. Deliberate anachronisms punctuate the dialogue. The wonderfully cluttered set includes a modern refrigerator filled with pop-top cans of beverage. A character drinks from a Zabar’s mug. The men wear period costumes, the women are mainly in modern dress. If you go expecting another Natasha… , you will be disappointed. The broad scope of Tolstoy’s novel and that play’s nightclub setting lent themselves to a theatricality that is not inherent in the story of a composer’s writer’s block. Also, the play takes a long time to build up steam and is quite uneven. More time in workshops might have produced a better result. Nevertheless, there is lots to admire including the fine cast. I give the creative team credit for their ambitious efforts. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes including a short break midway.

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