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Playwright-musician Dave Malloy and director Rachel Chavkin took an invigorating romp through 19th century Russia with Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, their inventive 2012 electro-pop dinner-theater opera, fashioned out of a chapter of War and Peace. That team returns to the same setting, roughly 80 years later, to drop in on composer Sergei Rachmaninoff in a mid-career funk in Preludes. But the inspiration runs thinner this time around. A load of talent and resources has been thrown at this ambitious bio-drama, which features some rhapsodic music — notably via the masterful hands of onstage pianist Or Matias — and glorious singing. However, the distancing show is too clever by half; it’s dense, exhausting and pretentious.
None of that is the fault of the cast, ably led by the lanky Gabriel Ebert (a Tony winner for Matilda) as the tortured Rach’n’roller, still blubbering in a puddle of neuroses three years after the disastrous premiere in St. Petersburg of his Symphony No. 1 in D minor. That public humiliation has him whining in desperation as he hungers for membership to the elite club of Russia’s most influential artists of the time — Chekhov, Tchaikovsky, Tolstoy — all of them portrayed with sly hauteur by Chris Sarandon. At the urging of his concerned fiancee Natalya (Nikki M. James), he trudges through the agonizing details of his unproductive days and sleepless nights with his hypnotherapist, Nikolai Dahl.
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That white Russian male appears as a contemporary African-American woman, played by Eisa Davis in a casting stroke that typifies the freewheeling past-and-present mashup of this play with music. But therein lies the central problem.
Preludes unfolds inside the hypnotized mind of Rachmaninoff, and the creative team twists itself inside out trying to make artist’s block theatrical and involving. But it can’t be done; at least not here. Most of us who have spent time in therapy have experienced that nagging fear of boring our therapists with our first-world problems, thus adding to our catalog of failings. That fear is usually well founded, and former child prodigy Rachmaninoff, born into an aristocratic family that lost its fortune, is no exception.
The inescapable hitch here is that despite all of Malloy’s cultural erudition and century-hopping psychological observation, the composer’s unrelenting self-flagellation over whether he’s a genius or a hack is a big yawn. Even the collision of history with postmodern irony has been done before with more incisive wit, calling to mind the unconventional emo-musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.
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Nonetheless, the production looks and sounds terrific. Mimi Lien‘s set is a crazy tangle of antique and contemporary, with an exploding piano, a mess of wooden file cabinets, lamps, a music stand and a huge canvas depicting a wintry coastal landscape. There’s a kitchen corner with a modern refrigerator and cereal boxes, as well as a traditional Russian samovar. The gleaming grand piano played by Matias is paired with twin synthesizers that pump out anxious heartbeats and other sounds of angst and obsession.
While the adventurous mix doesn’t fully cohere, there’s much to admire, especially in the musical elements. Malloy’s arrangements of Rachmaninoff’s compositions are often bewitching, notably his “Vespers,” given added gravitas by the expressive bass-baritone rumble of performance artist Joseph Keckler as opera singer Feodor Chaliapin. Malloy’s songs riffing on Rachmaninoff pieces are an eclectic mixed bag, sometimes pretty, sometimes straining for poetry as they suggest everyone from Conor Oberst through Ben Gibbard to the Decemberists and even Laurie Anderson in moments of droning electronica, with synth backing that recalls vintage Portishead and Massive Attack.
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However, considering the surface playfulness of the approach, Preludes is oddly turgid. Since Rachmaninoff is busy fretting about having peaked at 19, and whether or not his work would endure, it’s too bad Malloy couldn’t have had a little more fun with that. He might have lightened the mood by evoking the cheesy 1970s Rachmani-knockoffs of pop crooner Eric Carmen. For that matter, one could reflect that without the composer’s bombastic chords, we might never have reveled in the flamboyant showmanship of Liberace. Kiki might have had no Herb. But alas, the play — which runs two very long hours — never transcends its underlying earnestness. Like a hermetic art school exercise, it’s intellectualized, airless and without an ounce of emotional engagement.
That applies to the re-enactment of the fateful symphony debut, conducted by a drunken Alexander Glazunov (the indispensable Sarandon again); to recollections of the blossoming of Rachmaninoff’s romance with first cousin Natalya while playing four-handed Beethoven; and to his eventual breakthrough with Dahl, as she prompts him to scale the Kilimanjaro in his mind, while Lien’s set erects snowy mountain caps beneath the descriptive cloak of Bradley King‘s lighting.
Mostly, as Rachmaninoff bangs on about his insecurities, we just wish he and everyone else would shut up so we could listen to Matias play.
Cast: Eisa Davis, Gabriel Ebert, Nikki M. James, Joseph Keckler, Chris Sarandon, Or Matias
Director: Rachel Chavkin
Playwright: Dave Malloy
Set designer: Mimi Lien
Costume designer: Paloma Young
Lighting designer: Bradley King
Sound designer: Matt Hubbs
Music director: Or Matias
Presented by Lincoln Center Theater, LCT3