Music, lyrics, book and orchestrations by Dave Malloy
Danielle Tarento in Association with Citric Acid Productions
Southwark Playhouse

Keith Ramsay Credit: Scott Rylander
Tom Noyes, Norton James Credit: Scott Rylander
Keith Ramsay, Georgia Louise Credit: Scott Rylander

There is no other way of describing this “musical fantasia set in the hypnotised mind of Sergei Rachmaninoff” to quote the cover of the programme but extraordinary. Indeed, it is unusual in every sense of the word and in many ways exceptional.

The fantasia has been created by Dave Malloy, whose work is not yet as widely known as it should be on this side of the Atlantic.

His magnum opus to date is Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, a stunning musical based on War and Peace, which took Broadway by storm, while the smaller scale Ghost Quartet proved popular when it came to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and is set for a new production to open the Boulevard Theatre in Soho from next month.

A multi-talented, multi-tasking cast perform on a stage set up on a diagonal to the audience. On two sides are keyboard players Joshua Li-Smith and Billy Bullivant, while at the centre sits a piano. On the borders are lights that periodically provide stunning spectacle, helped by the great visual sense of designer Rebecca Brower and director Alex Sutton.

The evening, which has vague echoes of Amadeus, opens as Keith Ramsey playing Rach, not to be confused with prodigious piano virtuoso Tom Noyes’s Rachmaninoff, makes a despairing plea to a hypnotherapist played by Rebecca Caine, having spent the previous three years suffering from a writer’s / composer’s block.

Adding to the fun, although the events depicted take place in Moscow during 1900, Rach and Georgia Louise in the role of his putative fiancée Natalya look and behave like contemporary New York punks, leaving the 2 hour 20 minute evening filled with anachronisms.

There is a parallel clash of musical styles, with classical piano solos pitted against Dave Malloy’s modern, electrical compositions in a wide variety of styles, every member of the cast required to sing and all doing so delightfully.

The bulk of the evening follows Rach’s mad, hypnotised journey into his own soul, tapping into the genius and power of many major Russian figures along the way.

Accompanied by opera singer Chaliapin (Norton James) and The Master (Steven Serlin), he has frequently tetchy meetings with inter alia Chekhov, Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky.

More significantly from a psychological perspective, he also finds himself confronting the Czar, whose permission is required since Natalya just happens to be the central character’s first cousin with whom marriage is illegal unless the great man himself decrees otherwise.

An even greater contributor to the mental block is the conductor Glazunov, whose drunken efforts to bring Rachmaninoff‘s music to the public very literally lead to disharmony.

Preludes is not a conventional theatrical piece but, with its combination of heady drama and glorious music, should prove popular with lovers of avant-garde stage presentations.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher