PRELUDES: An Inspired Musical
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
At: The Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad Street, RVA 23220
Performances: May 23 – June 30, 2018 [Recently extended through June 30!] Wed-Sat @ 7:30pm; Sun @ 4:00pm
Ticket Prices: $15 – $45; Special Date Night Romance packages available for $60 per couple
Info: (804) 355-2001 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Historically, the Firehouse Theatre’s current production of Dave Malloy’s inspired musical, Preludes, is significant. The work, a hybrid of classical music and an amalgam of various styles from folk to contemporary, has been mounted only twice before: it premiered at Lincoln Center in 2015 and made a German-language debut in Austria in 2017. When you see the musically complex and visually layered production, it’s easy to understand why this unorthodox musical has not been widely produced.
Preludes has all the elements of musical theater, but with an operatic demeanor, and then there are substantial sections that are purely instrumental. The cast is uniformly and outstandingly talented and versatile, acting, singing, and occasionally playing instruments.
Actor Travis West, one of the play’s two Rachmaninoff’s, spends the entire 2 hours and 10 minutes onstage at the grand piano – which he actually plays! Not only does he play music by Sergei Rachmaninoff (a noted composer and pianist of the late Romantic period), but he appears to have mastered the folk songs, samplings of other classical composers, and contemporary sounds while musical director Susan Randolph Braden on synthesizer fills in the rest of the beautifully eclectic score.
PJ Freebourn plays the role of Rach, the social, emotional, and less musical side of the main character. Freebourn’s portrayal of the composer very successfully and sympathetically draws us into the world of the composer during the three years of his deep depression that resulted in a writer’s block. His therapy with Dr. Dahl (a surprisingly subdued and self-contained Georgia Rogers Farmer), his relationship with his fiancé, Natalya, who is also his first cousin (Isabella Stansbury) are explored in realistic detail, quite in contrast to the time-changing setting and costuming choices that place this production squarely in a space that is neither the 19th century nor the 21st century, but both at the same time.
Jody Ashworth brings moments of insight and humor as Rachmaninoff’s friend, Chaliapin, and Levi Meerovich (yes, he really is of Russian descent) takes on multiple roles as several well-known Russian figures: Chekhov, Tchaikovsky, Tolstoy, Glazunov, Tsar Nicholas II, and The Master – all of whom were key figures in Rachmaninoff’s life and musical development. His wheezing, asthmatic Tsar was particularly memorable. As Meerovich explained in Thursday night’s talkback, it was not so much that he had to play each of these figures, but that he had to portray how Rachmaninoff saw them in his mind.
Free-flowing and with an often tenuous relationship to expected concepts of time and place, of what is real and what is embellished, Preludes is a surprisingly warm and intimate production that makes the audience feel as if we truly have a better understanding of both the man and his music. Why, for instance, die he consider C sharp minor to be the coolest key? What’s it like to produce a seminal work at age 19 and then spend years trying to figure out what is success and failure?
Director Billy Christopher Maupin insists he started with and still has more questions than answers about this production, and that appears to be a good thing, because he has directed with a hand guided by questions seeking answers and a respect for the ambiguous. Leslie Cook-Day’s costumes, likewise, have an ambiguity. Black, white, and gray blend in clothes that are at once contemporary and from a century or two ago. Ryan Dygert’s sound design is filled with ghostly sighs and breaths, heartbeats, and rattling chains. Visual chains are draped around the actors and the sets, some of them symbolically broken.
Emily Dandridge contributed some intense and well-integrated choreography, and Tennessee Dixon’s set and projections were almost a character on their own: four separate seating areas – a café table, the piano, a porch swing, and a psychiatrist’s office – were spread across the stage while animations and looped video and slow-motion video of the pianists’ hands subtly connected all the disparate elements.
Preludes is not a show I would recommend to someone who has never seen a musical or an opera, or anyone who likes things to turn out with all the ends neatly tied up – but it is a production I would highly recommend to anyone and everyone who likes excellent theater, good music, and stunningly creative theater.
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
Photo Credits: Bill Sigafoos