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Preludes: streamed live from The Little, Southwark Playhouse

It’s easy enough to get immersed into a production like this. Even in its concert format, there’s something compelling about the way in which the story is told, combining spoken word and melodies, both pushing forward the dialogue, sometimes at breakneck pace, and sometimes mercifully slower. Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) is represented by Keith Ramsay, who gets to do all of the composer’s talking (and, this being a musical, singing) and Tom Noyes, who has the privilege of playing the piano.

Keith Ramsay and Rebecca Caine, Preludes, credit Scott Rylander.
Keith Ramsay and Rebecca Caine, Preludes, credit Scott Rylander.

It is not, truth be told, always easy to follow exactly what is happening: the show comprises events in the composer’s therapy sessions with Nikolai Dahl (1860-1939) (Rebecca Caine), and those (like me) encountering this life story for the first time won’t know without doing a bit of reading afterwards what was possibly embellished, what has been confirmed by others as having taken place, and what, frankly, are nothing more and nothing less than creative licence on the part of Dave Malloy (music, lyrics, book, orchestrations).

Considerably more contemporary styles of music are in force throughout the show. I wouldn’t dare to speculate what Rachmaninoff himself would have made of the soundscape in this production, and I wonder if he would have wanted more stage time given to his love interest Natalya Satina (1877-1951) (Georgia Louise). Various characters at various points make direct eye contact with the camera (and thus the audience), at first increasing the intensity of a given moment. But the device it is somewhat overused, to the point that by the end of the show it almost loses completely the effectiveness and impact it had at the start.

That Rachmaninoff is so co-operative with Dahl comes across as contrived, but is apparently an accurate portrayal of how he approached therapy, and might have contributed to his ultimate recovery from his melancholy state, which – as this production would have it – came about after his Symphony No. 1 was not received well at all, at least partly due to a drunken conductor, Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936) (Steven Serlin, who also appears as miscellaneous other characters, including Anton Chekhov, all under the overall guise as ‘The Master’). The road to recovery is a long one, and not just because the production needs to justify having an interval – so much has been internalised, and so much needs to be released.

One gains the impression that Rachmaninoff (or at least this show’s version of him) treats music as a way of expressing thoughts and emotions that would otherwise be impossible to articulate. He does nothing by halves – and thus both Ramsey and Noyes, the former sometimes speaking with such speed and intensity it is almost as if he is about to spontaneously combust – but in performances that are, taken together, almost exhausting to watch.

Other highlights include Dahl’s ‘Hypnosis’ song towards the end of the second half, sung beautifully by Caine, and ‘Loop’ performed with gusto by Rachmaninoff’s opera singer friend Chaliapin (Norton James). Andrew Exeter’s lighting design does much to capture the essence of each and every scene, and it is rather refreshing to encounter a musical that defies almost every musical convention – there’s no ‘I wish’ number, and neither the first nor second half ends with a showstopping flourish.

Intense and compelling, the show left me in quiet reflection for a few minutes immediately afterwards. For once the lack of rapturous applause at the end felt appropriate for such a thoughtful piece of theatrical brilliance.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Preludes previously ran in The Large in autumn 2019 to critical acclaim. This production is a concert version featuring the same cast. It’s directed by Alex Sutton and produced by Danielle Tarento. The cast is Rebecca Caine, Norton James, Georgia Louise, Tom Noyes, Keith Ramsay and Steven Serlin.

Three-time Tony Award-nominated composer Dave Malloy has written a brand new song, which will receive its world premiere performance in this concert production.

Danielle Tarento presents the live stream premiere of
Music, lyrics, book and orchestrations by Dave Malloy. Directed by Alex Sutton.

Live stream production credits:
Lighting design by Andrew Exeter. Sound design by Andrew Johnson.
Musical direction by Jordan Li-Smith. Live stream operation by Bartek Podkowa.

Original production credits:
Set and costume design by Rebecca Brower. Lighting design by Christopher Nairne. Sound design by Andrew Johnson. Choreography by Ste Clough. Musical direction by Jordan Li-Smith.

Cast: Rebecca Caine, Norton James, Georgia Louise, Tom Noyes, Keith Ramsay and Steven Serlin.



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