UPDATE Tuesday morning, with a few more details throughout: Composer Dave Malloy and director Rachel Chavkin share an affinity for big themes and bold gestures, preferably on Russian themes. Their collaboration Natasha, Pierre And The Great Comet Of 1812 was a noisy whimsical meringue built around a sequence from War And Peace. The more intimate and likable Preludes, which has opened in the Claire Tow Theater atop the Vivian Beaumont, goes inside the troubled head of the late-Romantic composer Sergei Rachmaninoff in an effort to figure out why he took the monumental failure of his Symphony No. 1 in D minor so darned hard.
Entering the tiny Tow, we’re subverted into Mimi Lien’s fantastic, vaguely surreal dreamscape set — grand piano at center, suggestions of a kitchen to our left, heavy oak doors at the side and musical paraphernalia strewn about. At the Steinway is an extraordinary pianist, Or Matias, who will play extended, demanding quotes from various works in the Rachmaninoff repertory (as well as works by Mussorgsky, Bach and others) throughout the two-hour evening. Gabriel Ebert, late of Matilda, plays the composer, already a concert favorite when the botched premiere of his first orchestral work sets him a drift in a composing block that, at the urging of his sympathetic wife Natalya (Nikki M. James, best known from The Book Of Mormon) lands him in the care of a hypnotist.
The shrink’s name was Nikolai Dahl, here transmuted into an enchantress, or at least the enchanting actress Eisa Davis (Passing Strange), who rolls with Rachmaninoff’s resistance while empathically bringing him face to face with his demons personal and public through trips in his mind where he encounters Chekhov, Tchaikovsky, Tolstoy, Glazunov and even Czar Nicholas — all played with comic assurance by Chris Sarandon. There are also semi-comic interludes with Sergei and Natalya’s friend the legendary actor and basso profundo Feodor Chaliapin, played and sung to the hilt by Joseph Keckler.
Anachronisms (a toaster sits beside the samovar in the kitchen) and malaprops abound, some of the humor is sophomoric and at a couple of points the whole thing comes perilously close to tweenosity — especially in Malloy’s stream-of-consciousness songs interspersed with the more serious music and a little of which goes a long way. But in the end Preludes is an involving and ultimately moving story about the unknowable ebbs and flows of creativity that artists fear, sometimes master, sometimes fall victim to and invariably navigate over the course of a lifetime. As recreated here, it’s a most intriguing and engaging journey down the rabbit hole of artistic accomplishment.