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A CurtainUp Review

Think of Kilimanjaro. . . Think of how good it feels to have it achieved. .— Dahl
Nikki M. James
Nikki M. James and Gabriel Ebert (Photo by Kyle Froman)
Dave Malloy's new musical Preludes at the Claire Tow Theater will please some and puzzle others. Inspired by the music of the great Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff and directed by Rachel Chavkin, it gains the distinction of being LCT3's first musical.

The premise is surreal: It takes place in the hypnotized mind of the young "Rach" in Moscow in 1900. A disastrous premiere of his Symphony No. 1 by the famous musician Alexander Glazunov (most accounts report he was drunk and under-rehearsed) was pummeled by a prominent critic and scorned by his peers. This resulted in a 3-year long bout of depression and writer's block for Rach. His family arranged for daily sessions with hypno-therapist Nikolai Dahl which helped him regain his creati,ve energies. His next work, Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor delighted critics and public alike. Little wonder that this popular piece was dedicated to Dahl.

Rachmaninoff's music is terrific here, and Malloy's contemporary riffs serve as vital connective tissue. What you get in this two-hour show is pure Rachmaninoff, original Malloy, and a real mash-up of classical and contemporary music. Although Malloy has no standout number in the musical, his score smoothly blends in and accents Rachmaninoff's gold.

Forget plotline, logic, and the usual theatrical conventions. Malloy has concocted a dreamscape for his characters to breathe and collide in. Not only do you get to eavesdrop on the hypno-therapy sessions between Rach and Dahl, but his various encounters with contemporaneous artists — including Tchaikovsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Chaliapin, and Glazunov. Rachmaninoff's wife Natalya (and his first cousin) also figures large in this piece. She is the real catalyst for Rach and Dahl's first encounter and all that follows, turning a would-be tragedy into a triumph of the spirit and more.

The problem with Preludes is that its surreal premise grows thin and it all goes on too long. When Dahl and Rach aren't in the spotlight, it's sometimes difficult to pin down the supporting characters. Tchaikovsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov fade in and out of scenes rather quickly. And with the same actor (Chris Sarandon) playing them, it can get mighty confusing.

There's no doubt Malloy wants to erase the strict boundaries of time and space in Preludes. But the eminences need more definition in the hypnotic milieu.

While the piece tends to feel unmoored, it has a top-drawer cast. Gabriel Ebert, as the 27 year-old composer Rach is rightly intense. Eisa Davis as the hypno-therapist Nikolai Dahl gender-bends the historical figure but is meticulous in her portrayal of the forward-thinking therapist. Nikki M. James, as Rach's first cousin and wife Natalya, is the epitome of conjugal devotion. Joseph Keckler's opera singer Chaliapin chews up the scenery at every appearance. Chris Sarandon takes on Chekhov, Tchaikovsky, Tolstoy, Glazunov, Tsar Nicholas II, and The Master. His quicksilver role changing is admirable, even if his eminences tend to get blurred.

Among the best moments is a tete-a-tete between Rach and Tolstoy in which the novelist looks down his superior nose and stingingly vets, not only Rach's but Beethoven's music. Not good for the emotional equilibrium of the sensitive young artist, who idolized Tolstoy and continually worried that he would be nothing more than a "morning glory" in the classical musical world. Malloy, who plucked this scene right out of history to capture Tolstoy's arrogance and Rach's fragile state of mind.

As Preludes a scratches beneath Rach's complex persona. Not only do you listen to his musings on art, but learn about his perfect ear for notes and his extraordinarily large hands that allowed him to stretch octaves in a snap. Malloy has dreamed up a breath-taking finale that transports you right into the foothills of Kilimanjaro.

The creative team complements the surreal premise. Set designer Mimi Lien, who worked with Malloy on Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, has designed a multi-level performance space with a descending staircase at stage right, an elegant Yamaha piano at center stage, with oriental rugs, furniture, and a mound of white material (that will morph into something else later). Down stage, she inventively whippped up what could be the rough equivalent of a classical musician's attic. Bradley King's lighting ranges from a soft glow at the opener, to a psychedelic strobe-light effect in a number called "Loop," to a just right wash for the dramatic finale. Paloma Young's period costumes are apropos. Matt Hubbs who finesses the sound effects, and musicians Wiley Deweese and Emily Marshall play the synthesizers on stage.

Preludes hits some flat notes, but Malloy has reclaimed the salad days of this great composer without sentimentalizing them. Together with many artistic alumns from Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, he nails down that dark Russian melancholy mindset.

Written by Dave Malloy
Directed by Rachel Chavkin
Cast: Eisa Davis (Dahl), Gabriel Ebert (Rach), Nikki M. James (Natalya), Joseph Keckler (Chaliapin), Chris Sarandon (Chekhov/Tchaikovsky/Tolstoy/Glazunov/Tsar Nicholas II/ The Master, the Master), Or Matias (Rachmaninoff on piano).
Sets: Mimi Lien
Costumes: Paloma Young
Sound: Matt Hubbs
Lighting: Bradley King
Stage Manager: Karyn Meek
Music Director: Or Matias
The Claire Tow Theater, 150 W. 65th Street. All tickets: $30.
From 05/23/15; opening 06/15/15; closing 7/19/15.
Monday through Sunday at 7PM; Saturday & Sunday matinees at 2PM. No Tuesday performances.
Running time: 2 hours: 10 minutes with a brief pause.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan
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