Theater Review: PRELUDES (Lyric Stage in Boston)

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by Lynne Weiss on January 12, 2023

in Theater-Regional

PRELUDE TO A BREAKTHROUGH

The Lyric Stage Company brings powerful performances to Dave Malloy’s remarkable evocation of the composer Sergei Rachmaninoff’s struggles with a creative block through hypnotherapy. Rachmaninoff himself is portrayed as two characters. One called Rachmaninoff (Dan Rodgriguez) sits at a white baby grand through most of the show, providing a stunning shower of music influenced by the compositions of Rachmaninoff. The other character, Rach (Dan Prior), is Rachmaninoff in high-tops, telling his therapist Dr. Dahl (Aimee Doherty) about the mundane struggles of his day: he makes coffee with his espresso machine, listens to his mother’s Elton John records, and sleeps. In short, Rachmaninoff is a man we can relate to, no stuffy icon of the late 19th or early 20th centuries, but an artist or a human being much like the rest of us, struggling in the face of massive self-doubt.

As with Malloy’s Octet, Ghost Quartet, and Natasha, Pierre, & The Great Comet of 1812, much of the dialogue in this genre-busting production is sung, and many of the scenes are richly layered, much like the music of Rachmaninoff, with its competing melodic and verbal elements. As Natalya, Rachmaninoff’s cousin and fiancée, Natalya — who is also a great pianist — Kayla Shimizu brings her gorgeous voice to another very relatable role, the long-suffering partner of a person struggling with depression. Anthony Pires, Jr. as Rachmaninoff’s larger-than-life friend, opera singer Chaliapin, brings down the house with his performance of “Loop,” a musical summoning of the trance experience. The incredibly versatile Will McGarrahan plays, at various times, Anton Chekhov, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, and Leo Tolstoy, figures who alternately encourage or discourage Rachmaninoff, as well as Alexander Glazunov, whose drunken conducting ruined the premiere of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 1, throwing the then-young composer into a depression that left him blocked and unable to write for nearly four years. The disastrous execution of this work is one of many biographical details we learn about Rachmaninoff.

This is a complex work, carrying the audience in and out of Rachmaninoff’s trance states and his real-world struggles with inertia. Director Courtney O’Connor handles it well for the most part, though a few scenes could be shortened with no sacrifice to content. Even with a spare, nonrepresentational set, Shelley Barish brings the romantic context of Rachmaninoff’s work to life, and the shifting lights of Karen Perlow move us from the world of Rachmaninoff to his sometimes-psychedelic trance states.

Don’t be put off from attending this play if you know little about the music of Rachmaninoff. Even with previously limited knowledge, I came away newly curious about the composer and his work, and inspired by the possibilities for overcoming the self-doubt and anxiety that plague most of us. All in all, I found it a satisfying start to 2023, and urge Boston-area theater lovers to attend.

photos by Mark S. Howard

Preludes
Lyric Stage, 140 Clarendon Street in Boston
ends on February 6, 2023
for tickets, visit Lyric Stage

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