Review by Dom O'Hanlon
13 July 2015
There seems to be a distinct theme connecting musicals on and off Broadway this season which has suffered a variety of treatments with varying degrees of success. The story of a frustrated writer struggling to find an original idea or overcome writers block may not be an original idea, but new musicals such as "Something Rotten", "Finding Neverland" and the Encores! revival of "A New Brain" have each explored the process rather than the product, giving audiences an 'in' as to what it means to be a creative.
Perhaps the greatest musical example dealing with this theme is Sondheim and Lapine's 1984 musical 'Sunday in the Park With George', with which Dave Malloy's new musical 'Preludes' at the Lincoln Center's Claire Tow Theatre shares a lot in common. At the centre is a frustrated and celebrated creative, in this case Rachmaninoff, fighting his creative demons and attempting to write something better than what has gone before - a hugely daunting and seemingly unachievable task.
It's a theme that Oprah has helped christen "chasing the phenomenon" - something she spoke in depth with author J.K Rowling about in a recent interview, citing Michael Jackson's search to better himself following the 'Thriller' album, only to be disappointed with when his next album 'Bad' failed in comparison. Can creatives recognise the phenomenon of their career and can they accept their work may never be bettered?
If the above musical examples are to be used, the fictional Nick Bottom succeeded in creating the world's first 'musical', J.M Barrie stuck gold in creating 'Peter Pan' and George Seurat delivered one of his finest paintings with "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte". 'Preludes' however doesn't offer the same level of harmony, either for the subject or the audience.
Whilst Rachmaninoff secured his place in history as a fine pianist and composer of late Romantic music, he was always seen as being overly populist, and in life couldn't shake off the early success gained with his famed Prelude in C# minor. It's at this point in his career that Malloy's musical presents the frustrated composer, who by his own admission is haunted by his success, dreading being asked to play the piece at parties and hearing amateur versions resonate out of windows.
The drama is set as the young Rach is plunged into depression and writers block following the disastrous inaugural performance of his first Symphony in D minor. His wife (and cousin) Natalya sends him to work with Nikolai Dahl, a hypnotherapist who helps open him up creatively to compose some of his most profound later works.
The piece suffers mainly thanks to its own pretension. Whilst there is an interesting and thoroughly compelling story to be told, the story is suffocated by its own love of itself, and the clarity of message and insight becomes unfocused. The duality of Rach's character is presented effectively with an on stage pianist - a move that works both practically and thematically, but the layers of pretension piled on top of the narrative by director Rachel Chavkin threaten what would otherwise be a highly successful piece.
Mimi Lien's design is stunning in every respect - presenting a cluttered mind in both an expressionist and realistic way, framing the piano as the rightful central focus, but framing the stage with a beautiful collection of props and pieces that give the impression of a messy attic.
I couldn't help but be disappointed by the musical offerings, with disparate sounds inspired by Rachmaninoff only half fulfilling their purpose. The act break provided the most tuneful number, in a much more solid musical theatre style with expert delivery by Tony Award winner Nikki M. James as Natalya, Rach's wife. On the whole, performances were strong, when not directed to be so unlikable.
Just as the audience were able to find a hook into the piece, something pretentious and unnecessary got in the way as if to deliberately stop the musical from being too accessible or easy to love. I fell in love with about 50% of the show and hated the remaining half. This is the type of show that turns many ordinary theatre goers off theatre itself, a feeling certainly shared by the muted audience response it was met with (the only show out of 14 I saw in New York in the same week that didn't receive a standing ovation).
Having loved Malloy's 'Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812', perhaps 'Preludes' is anecdotal, and his phenomenon, like that of his subject matter, has already passed.
"Mr. Malloy and Ms. Chavkin have delivered the best musical about art's agonies since Georges Seurat wielded a twitchy paintbrush in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's "Sunday in the Park With George".
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"This show, directed by Rachel Chavkin, who also helmed "Natasha," feels more like a well-performed but dry-eyed thesis."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"The show could have used more of that unfiltered emotion - it loses focus jumping back and forth, and sometimes gets just a little too clever."
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post
"Nothing in this ingeniously staged but overlong and self-indulgent piece comes close to giving the same transporting pleasure as Matias's ravishing piano playing."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety
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