BWW Review: PRELUDES at Firehouse Theatre: The Artist's Journey...
Firehouse Theatre's previous musical endeavor, WINGS, presented a first-person piece of introspection whose action was almost entirely witnessed (and/or imagined) from the encapsulated viewpoint of the protagonist: a stroke victim.
Fast forward to PRELUDES - the densely-complex daydream of orchestral and operatic indulgences concocted from the acute faculties of playwright and composer Dave Malloy - and Firehouse Theatre gives the audience another piercing glimpse into the mind of a single casualty of forlorn fortunes.
In regards to this concerted occasion: we venture into the gothic cognizance of Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff as he laments over his struggles to compose a new piece after a three year bout of writer's block.
The metaphysical nature of presenting the trials of the writer or the artist is a time-honored practice among dissecting authors. Whether this curious journey explores the world of fiction in, say, Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys, or the world of visual arts with Irving Stone's Lust For Life (and The Agony And The Ecstasy for that matter), or even in the world of music (Peter Schaffer's Amadeus), the gentle fascination with the creative process will arguably never succumb to disinterest.
Yet what makes PRELUDES so emphatically special is the interpolation of Rachmaninoff's music as it weaves in and around the play's predominantly sung-through dialogue. It is a masterstroke by Malloy; indeed, the libretto itself reads like a vocal book more than a script being that it's mostly comprised of sheet music.
Thus, by necessity, Firehouse Theatre has delivered a grand piano, two synthesizers, and a couple of more intimate instruments to be played at the behest of musical director Susan Randolph Braden (who constantly sits at the stage right synthesizer) by every last member of the six person cast - an unforgettable feat in and of itself.
This cast, helmed by a grand piano mini-concert performed by virtuoso Travis West, is sublime. As West plays the role of the effective Rachmaninoff at the keys, PJ Freebourn compassionately plays the sulky counterpart: the ineffective "Rach".
Writhing in angst over his inability to produce a new measure, "Rach" is heralded by a number of illusory inquisitors. Jody Ashworth is booming as the lauded opera star Chaliapin, and Levi Meerovich's presence is arresting as he hilariously embodies five different incarnations of Russian cultural paragons, as well as one obscure admirer of Sergei's.
"Rach" is further guided by the likes of a perceptive hypnotherapist named Dahl (a cool and wistful Georgia Rogers Farmer), and by the caring (and sometimes strained) attention of his fiancée Natalya (played with earnest longing by Isabella Stansbury).
"Rach's" emotional trek, with the near unceasing accompaniment of instrumental chords and vocalizing, culminates into a richly cathartic unveiling of how inspiration and applied innovation can be rediscovered.
Working from a libretto bereft of virtually any stage direction, director Billy Christopher Maupin has outdone himself; his characters move with brisk sincerity, highlighted by welcomed flits of choreography by Emily Berg-Poff Dandridge. Clocking in at 2 hours and 10 minutes, the play never drags or feels stagnant.
The design of the play itself is a behemoth. Invoking perhaps a visual commentary on the dizziness of Rachmaninoff's haphazard thoughts, Tennessee Dixon packs the melancholy stage with period furniture, props, stairs, windows, and an immense scrim that displays black and white projections of various settings and delicate actions. Leslie Cook-Day's chain-clad costumes compliment the gloominess of the space.
Further accolades go to stage manager Cailin Lindsay and her assistant Leighanne Perry for their quick handling of Christian DeAngelis' moody lights and Ryan Dygert's foreboding sounds in tandem with the oftentimes loud and daunting harmonies that the actors/musicians produce.
Firehouse Theatre has stood by its commitment to deliver surprise after surprise, and PRELUDES is no exception. This is an overtly challenging piece met head-on by a sturdy cast and crew, and the results are tangible and euphonious.
So much so that, in the entire time that I've written this, I have been listening to my personal favorite Rachmaninoff composition: "Sonata in G Minor for Cello and Piano, Op. 19," specifically the fourth movement, Allegro mosso.
PRELUDES plays through the June the 10th, 2018, at the Firehouse Theatre.