BWW Feature: MASH NOTE TO PRELUDES at Firehouse Theatre
If anyone was paying attention (though I don't know why anyone would), they probably noticed that I was in the bag for "Preludes" long before it ever hit the stage.
Firehouse Theatre put Dave Malloy's 2015 musical on its schedule announcement in 2017. Unfamiliar with the title, I did a little research. A musical about composer Sergei Rachmaninoff's three-year writer's block, and how he emerged from it through hypnotherapy.
The original cast recording existed, but it wasn't yet on Spotify, so I actually ordered the CD. When it came, I listened to a little bit of it. Who was ever going to come to this show? Who was ever going to be able to put it on?
I decided to ask Firehouse's producing artistic director (or whatever his title was at the time) Joel Bassin. I had never really talked to Joel before. I sat in his office and asked my questions. What had made him choose "Preludes"? How were they going to staff this show? How were they going to find people to buy tickets?
Joel told me he was a big fan of Dave Malloy, the composer/lyricist who had been active since 2001, collaborating with director Rachel Chavkin since 2012, and was now celebrated for his "Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812," the musical "War and Peace" excerpt that hit Broadway in 2016. He wanted to do "Preludes," which had previously had only one New York production and a second production in Austria. He wasn't all that sure where the audience would come from, but he had asked actor/director Billy-Christopher Maupin to direct it, and it was due to open in the summer of 2018.
I sold my editor on a feature about Maupin's preparation for the show, and I met with him at a coffee shop. He sounded both challenged and flummoxed by the task before him.
I had tried to see "Great Comet" in 2017. Caring not at all about Josh Groban as Pierre, I was hoping to see the "Hamilton" fave Okieriete Onaodowan, who was to replace him. But things did not go well for Oke--it was a scandal at the time--and the show closed abruptly, before my scheduled date.
By the time it I did my follow-up interview with Maupin, Dave Timberline had initiated a class on the show for VCU's Commonwealth Society, and my husband was taking it. Dave asked me to come to one session to talk about arts criticism, which is a feature of the "Preludes" story, so I got to do that and stop by a rehearsal as well. And I saw part of a second rehearsal when I spoke with Maupin again. I got to meet music director Susan Randolph Braden, who was bursting with enthusiasm at her talented cast of singer-musicians and invigorated at reviving her Russian for some of the songs. (I mourn her recent passing after a long battle with cancer.)
So I was in a frenzy of anticipation by the time I saw the show, and it did not disappoint. It is hard not to gush. PJ Freebourn was amazing as Rach. Isabella Stansbury was beyond wonderful as Natalya. Jody Ashworth's gift of a voice was an incredible asset to the show. Levi Meerovich was a huge contributor through his musical gifts and a variety of characterizations. Georgia Rogers Farmer provided solid grounding as the compassionate hypnotist. And all these actors played instruments as well.
And then there is Travis West, who played the role of Rachmaninoff, which means that he played classical piano music onstage throughout the show and sang as well. The talent!
Tennessee Dixon, Emily Dandridge, Leslie Cook-Day, Christian DeAngelis and Ryan Dygert provided excellent production values to the endeavor. Somehow Maupin synthesized this into something that became a spiritual experience for me. I badgered music-loving friends from Maryland and Connecticut to come. I saw three performances myself.
I lived for the moment near the end when PJ, as Rach, is led through a hypnosis session by Georgia as Dahl, the therapist. He is on a mountain in the snow, but it is warm; he needs to go up the mountain, but he doesn't know how to go. Dahl reminds him that he has done this before. He needs to start by taking a step. "But how do I know where to go?" he asks.
"There is a path," Georgia says. And then she sings, in her perfect voice, "There is a path."
Even now I can't get by that line without tears. And that is why I love theater.