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Lyric Stage’s ‘Preludes’ doesn’t lead anywhere special

Dan Prior and Aimee Doherty in "Preludes" at Lyric Stage Company of Boston.Mark S. Howard

To dramatize creative stasis without a certain inertia creeping into the dramatization itself presents no small challenge — one that the ambitious but muddled “Preludes” fails to meet at Lyric Stage Company of Boston.

At the center of Dave Malloy’s “musical fantasia,” helmed by Lyric Stage artistic director Courtney O’Connor, is Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, here called Rach and portrayed by Dan Prior.

Alternately morose and manic, Rach proves to be mighty wearisome company, and “Preludes” is too flawed for its underlying question about identity — Who is an artist if he can’t create his art? — to truly resonate.

When we first meet him, Rach is grappling with a three-year case of writer’s block in turn-of-the-century Moscow. At the encouragement of his supportive fiancée, Natalya (Kayla Shimizu), Rach has sought help from hypnotherapist Nikolai Dahl (Aimee Doherty).


“Preludes” mostly unfolds within Rach’s hypnotized mind, punctuated by visits from Russian giants like Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Tchaikovsky (all played by Will McGarrahan) and opera singer Feodor Chaliapin (Anthony Pires Jr.)

In what proves to be a significant tactical error, Malloy opted to begin “Preludes” with Dahl asking Rach to describe his day. The composer obliges, and what follows is an interminable, hour-by-hour recitation that leaves out no tedious detail. It would take a Samuel Beckett to make this sort of thing compelling. In “Preludes,” the effect is deadening; it feels like we in the audience are setting out on a journey in a car with a flat tire.

That journey does have its moments along the way, but they don’t really arrive until Act Two, thanks in part to director O’Connor’s skill at generating dark-night-of-the-soul atmospherics on Shelley Barish’s graceful set. But when “Preludes” does generate a real sense of dramatic momentum, the production can’t sustain it.

While overall Prior does not deliver a performance strong enough to draw us completely into Rach’s struggles or impart a sense of urgency and high stakes to the proceedings, the actor does convey just how lost the composer is.


Prior brings a passionate bewilderment to Rach’s description of his breakthrough at age 19; how the piece that brought him overnight success became a kind of prison, with him being asked to play it everywhere he went; and how it gave rise to a haunting question: “What if that was the one? What if that was the one, best thing I’ll ever do, and I spend the rest of my life just getting worse and worse?”

A sneaker-wearing Prior and most other members of the cast are largely attired in modern dress (costumes are by Rachel Padula-Shufelt), and Malloy’s script is laced with deliberate anachronisms, the aim apparently being to connect Rachmaninoff with all blocked artists in all times and places.

Seeking to represent what Malloy describes in his script as “two halves of the same person,” Dan Rodriguez also plays Rachmaninoff (a renowned concert pianist as well as a composer), seated at a white piano in formal attire throughout “Preludes.” (Rodriguez also serves as the show’s music director.)

McGarrahan and Pires are always a welcome sight, but the appearances by the advice-offering immortals they play still seem gimmicky. When McGarrahan’s Chekhov shows up to extol the virtues of dramatic concision, he has a rifle slung over his shoulder, literalizing the dramatic concept of “Chekhov’s gun.” The gruff Tolstoy mostly blusters, though he does pose a pertinent query for Rachmaninoff and any other artist: “Now you, boy, what do you want? To be famous, or be good?”


Malloy’s inventiveness has been more effective in other works that may be familiar to local theatergoers. His “Natasha, Pierre, & The Great Comet of 1812,” a musical adaptation of a section of “War and Peace,” was staged at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater in 2015, prior to its Broadway run. He also wrote and composed a musical adaptation of “Moby-Dick” that premiered at the ART four years ago, and co-created “Three Pianos,” an absorbing music-theater piece structured around Schubert’s “Winterreise” that was presented at the ART in 2011.

At one point in “Preludes,” Rach says to therapist Dahl: “I would like to be remembered.” Within Malloy’s body of work, it seems unlikely that “Preludes” will be.


Music, lyrics, book, and orchestrations by Dave Malloy. Directed by Courtney O’Connor. Music direction, Dan Rodriguez. Presented by Lyric Stage Company of Boston. Through Feb. 5. $25-$85, at 617-585-5678 or www.lyricstage.com

Don Aucoin can be reached at donald.aucoin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeAucoin.