Kayla Shimizu, Anthony Pires Jr., Dan Prior, Will McGarrahan and Dan Rodriguez in Lyric Stage Company production of “Preludes.” COURTESY MARK S. HOWARD

‘Preludes’ ably shows Rachmaninoff’s struggle to overcome depression, critical rejection

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‘Preludes’ ably shows Rachmaninoff’s struggle to overcome depression, critical rejection

Kayla Shimizu, Anthony Pires Jr., Dan Prior, Will McGarrahan and Dan Rodriguez in Lyric Stage Company production of “Preludes.” COURTESY MARK S. HOWARD

Is there such a thing as composer’s block? Sergei Rachmaninoff would certainly say ‘yes.’ The renowned Russian composer-pianist struggled to create major new work for three years after very negative reception for his first symphony in 1897 (a work now highly regarded and frequently performed). After three years of severe depression and regular therapy in 1900 with physician-amateur musician Nikolai Dahl, Rachmaninoff was finally able to perform his new and now seminal second piano concerto.

Dave Molloy – who demonstrated a fondness for Russian material in his grand and sweeping Tolstoy-based “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812” – has focused on the composer, this block and his eventual creative triumph in a thoughtful effort titled “Preludes.” While Malloy’s show needs more of the musical line possessed by the composer’s major works, the Lyric Stage Company of Boston’s well-performed and affecting area premiere makes it worth a hearing.

The musical’s somewhat slow opening may have some theatergoers – Rachmaninoff fans among them – questioning the worthiness of that hearing. The painstakingly detailed daily work between note-taking therapist Dahl and the composer in the early going, reflected in the opening number “Your Day,” may seem fairly monotone and unproductive. Gradually, though, those sessions bear fruit as the highly self-critical composer comes to terms with his frustrations.

Malloy has two performers portraying the protagonist – one identified as Rach, the emotionally conflicted Russian, and the other as Rachmaninoff – the ultimately acclaimed pianist and composer. Dan Prior has all of Rach’s self-doubts and inner turmoil. Expert music director Dan Rodriguez finds all the fiery precision of Rachmaninoff’s own playing in part of the second concerto. Under Courtney O’Connor’s sharp direction, Prior and Rodriguez make smooth transitions onstage.

“Preludes” takes its name from a musical term for introductory pieces, often for an opera or a suite. Malloy may also want theatergoers to see the hypnotherapy sessions. Helping the composer immeasurably is his very supportive music teacher cousin and fiancée Natalya Satin (they would marry in 1902) – exuberantly portrayed by songbird-voiced Kayla Shimizu. Shimizu brings glorious high notes to “Natalya,” the first act closer.

Less helpful are contacts with such Russian titans as Chekhov, Tchaikovsky and Tolstoy. Chekhov cautions not to “spend our lives worrying about nonsense” and urges the composer to get to work. Tchaikovsky – who speaks of hearing the voice of God – invites Rachmaninoff to drink cognac and sing with him. Tolstoy speaks of the importance of inner rhythm and asks if he works every day. All of this may come across as easy counseling, but versatile veteran actor Will McGarrahan does his very best to bring these very different icons to life.

The most satisfying advice from a famed talent comes in “Loop,” the standout second act opening musical number. Here Fyodor Chaliapin, Rachmaninoff’s lifelong friend and great opera singer, revolves in a kind of trance dance that calls for openness to new creativity that the composer truly needs. Anthony Pires, Jr. displays a richly deep register as the renowned bass. Karen Perlow’s vivid lighting here complements the high energy of the number.

Throughout the musical, Shelley Barish’s elegant yet spare scenic design helps keep the focus on the composer and his work.

During therapy, Rachmaninoff speaks of wanting to visit Mount Kilimanjaro someday. “Preludes” may not reach such heights on stage. Still, its earnest exploration of Rachmaninoff’s own personal and creative climb should have theatergoers and music lovers making an always-timely return to the great composer’s dynamic canon. Θ

“Preludes” runs through Feb. 5 at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston.

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