Music and Lyrics: Dave Malloy
Director: Alex Sutton
No matter the talent, the fame or influence, there is one thing we all share in common: fear. Even Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, a composer so synonymous with his craft that even those who couldn’t hum an arrangement of his will still recognise the name. By the age of twenty, he was a commissioned composer working on symphonies and engaged to the marvellous Natalya; by 21, he was hampered by depressive episodes of paranoia and anxiety.
And for those working within the arts industry, the experience of attempting to drive forward under the crippling ballast of tension and poor mental health strikes a particular accord. Torn asunder by the desire to produce – the nature of creative types – and the struggle against a torrent of black knots gnawing at the core is a complex behemoth to translate to the stage.
Two years ago, Preludes, an innovative musical, explored a select period of Rachmaninoff’s life in all the drapery and misery one would expect. Narrowing to times spent in therapy (both hypnosis and psychotherapy), Preludes returns in concert format to its UK home, Southwark Playhouse. And in true Dave Malloy fashion, it hurtles the conceptual biographic musical out of the window and into something you’re unlikely to have witnessed before.
Shifting the structure to a concert-style expression directs much of the focus on Malloy’s lyrics and composition, not that they required any additional attention. Sharply vulnerable, Rachmaninoff’s desire to secure help and overcome his struggles with mental health is embraced within Malloy’s lyrics. So too is the narrative at times coming over as nothing short of tormentingly human as the lyrical nature morphs into a spoken word format for the interludes between numbers.
And despite taking experimentations within the composition, musical direction from Jordan Li-Smith understands how to tie this expressionist form into the character of Rachmaninoff and others. Steven Serlin is given the arduous but rich task of bringing cultural juggernauts Chekov, Tchaikovsky, and an older, bitter Tolstoy to fruition.
Bundled with a blanketing coat of black, Keith Ramsay is an amalgamated smash of all tremendous emo tropes of the early 2000s – and we’re living for it. A pinch of MCR’s Black Parade and a heaping lump of Panic! everything about the aesthetic of Ramsay’s Rachmaninoff screams of the struggle within. Not only armed with a voice unlike that of many musical performers, both with a technical capability but also with a grasp of emotional complexity, Ramsay’s expression and mannerism shift from arrogance to fear-stricken as effortlessly as a key change.
Momentum hurtles around the stage, transitioning magnificently in the limited space and defying its concert arrangement – harkening back to the musical’s stage origins. But for all of the brilliance Malloy and the production team achieve, there’s no ending in sight to the reverie escapade. Preludes meanders and overstays as the second act drones past the pinnacle moment of completion. The vulnerability is its rawest, and Rachmaninoff’s story examined, but Malloy pushes past this with another lengthy song, and it unravels an otherwise brilliant production. Sometimes it can be difficult to call an end to the fantasy, but reality also has its perks.
A whirling fantasia of inner turmoil and inhibiting consciousness ,Malloy serenades audiences with a uniquely gripping delve into the mindscape of a musical genius. Preludes adapts to the concert format with relative ease, maintaining a sense of movement with Rebecca Brower’s angular backdrops and the pulsing vibe of Christopher Nairne’s lighting. Peculiar, enrapturing, the fever-dream is a curiosity to become lost within for an unfathomably unique, if a little drawn-out, experience.
Reviewed on 7 May 2021