“Preludes” is a musical fanfiction about a hero’s deepest crisis.
And if you’re the type of person who likes to take inspiration from shows, it’s encouragement for struggling creatives to keep climbing that mountain, one step at a time.
Milwaukee Opera Theater opened its production of Dave Malloy’s fantasia (pun intended) Friday night at the Wisconsin Women’s Club. Malloy also wrote and composed the musical “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812”.
Jill Anna Ponasik directed this production, which runs through April 9.
‘Preludes’ delves into the worst years of young composer-pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff’s life, after his Symphony No. 1 was bombed on premiere night, leaving him depressed and largely unable to compose.
In the MOT production, Joe Picchetti plays the composer’s restless, anxious, depressed, maniacal mind, while musical director Ruben Piirainen, seated at the piano, is his musical ease, untouched by this crisis — Rachmaninoff was an exceptional pianist ( with big hands, as “Preludes” jokingly reminds us). Desperate, Rach de Picchetti begins to consult the kind and sensitive hypnotherapist Dahl (Jenny Wanasek) for help.
The failure of the symphony may not be the only reason for Rach’s enigma. “Preludes” also suggests he fears becoming a one-hit wonder that will never top the play he wrote at 19.
So 100 minutes of work through writer’s block might challenge even loyal MOT audiences, but Malloy wisely lifts “Preludes” with musical and comedic relief. Opera singer Chaliapin (Gage Patterson) is Rach’s Norton’s Kramden – but with Ralph as the Falstaffian blunderer. Joel Kopischke plays several heroes of Russian culture who engage with Rach, including Chekhov and Tolstoy, each hilariously deepening the composer’s sadness.
As Natalya, Natalie Ford is Rach’s long-suffering fiancé. She and Patterson both sing like angels, even when Ford sings the F-word.
The music for “Preludes” is a mixture of excerpts from Rachmaninoff played by Piirainen, a hint of other composers, and songs by Malloy. Synthesizers Marty Butorac and Dave Bonofiglio complement the pianist, enabling Malloy’s pop numbers, especially Patterson’s comedic trance feature “Loop”.
Knowing something about Rachmaninoff’s life and music would deepen the enjoyment of this show but is not strictly necessary.
On Friday, in a few louder places, I had trouble hearing Picchetti clearly above (or through) the synthesizers. I can’t tell if it was a function of my hearing, or a balance issue that could easily be fixed in later performances, or an effect of the non-traditional ballroom. These tended to be manic moments, and Picchetti had no trouble making his character’s comic distress visually apparent.
In his welcome speech, Ponasik acknowledged the awkwardness of staging this particular, long-planned spectacle as the fighting in Ukraine continues. “Preludes” offers some hope that one day, once again, our first thoughts of Russia will be about a culture gleaming with towering and fascinating eccentrics — not war.