Sergei Rachmaninoff is a young person’s composer, full of sound and fury (dum … dum … DUM!), his music delighting listeners on its own boyishly bombastic terms. Composer Dave Malloy responds to the music with his own boyish enthusiasm in “Preludes,” a highly personal mashup of Rachmaninoff’s work, a dark period of his history, and Malloy’s own musical compositions. There’s no denying the energy and the passion of his inventive interpretation, but it’s a jejune piece, lacking the near-universal appeal of his 2013 electropop opera “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.”
This may be the most ambitious show mounted at Lincoln Center’s nifty blackbox theater on the roof of its Broadway stage. It’s an intimate house, so Mimi Lien’s fantastic set for what the writer describes as “a musical fantasia set in the hypnotized mind of Sergei Rachmaninoff” is filled with interesting if slightly nightmarish period paraphernalia that seems close enough to touch. (During dull stretches — usually, of Malloy’s own self-conscious compositions, like “Loop” and “Subway” — it’s tempting to estimate the costs of those artistically bashed-up piano parts and those intricately worked theatrical costumes designed by Paloma Young.)
When he’s at the piano, Rachmaninoff is played by Or Matias, the show’s gifted musical director. The super-talented Gabriel Ebert plays his modern-day alter-ego, Rach. Rachmaninoff/Rach is clearly troubled in his soul. The first few notes of his famous Prelude in C-sharp minor, Op. 3, no. 2, written when he was 19, are enough to send him reeling. The Prelude in B-flat major, Op. 23, no. 2 — the one he plays for his therapeutic hypnotist, Dr. Dahl (Eisa Davis, a very soothing presence, suitably shrink-ish) — is much safer.
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It doesn’t take a whole lot of psychological detective work on her part to trace his three-year writer’s block, his persistent night sweats and all his other personality disorders to the traumatic evening in 1897 when the eminent (but dead drunk) composer Alexander Glazunov conducted an under-rehearsed orchestra in a disastrous St. Petersburg concert of the 24-year-old composer’s first major work, Symphony No. 1 in D-minor, Op. 13. “The music leaves an evil impression” was the unkind judgement of one of the many critics who trashed his work.
In Rach’s fantasy, he pays visits to Chekhov (who wisely advises him to learn the power of silence over bombast), Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky and all the other Russian geniuses he admires, all of them played in grand style by Chris Sarandon, who also makes dignified work of Tsar Nicholas II, the Romanov monarch doomed to die in the Russian Revolution of 1917.
For all the fancy stagecraft devised by director Rachel Chavkin, who also did the honors in “Natasha, Pierre,” nothing in this ingeniously staged but overlong and self-indulgent piece comes close to giving the same transporting pleasure as Matias’s ravishing piano playing.
Which is not to slight Ebert’s brave perf as Rach. A Tony winner for his humorous portrayal of the gaudy Mr. Wormwood in “Matilda,” the prodigiously talented performer is perfectly cast as the gangling young genius.
He’s not alone, either. The great opera singer Fyodor Ivanovich Chaliapin (a swoony perf from the bass-baritone Joseph Keckler) adds his amazing voice to the drama as Rachmaninoff’s friend and fellow carouser. And Nikki M. James (“The Book of Mormon”) brings her light soprano to the romantic role of Natalya, the composer’s first cousin and fiancée.
But in the end, it proves more exhausting than entertaining (or even uplifting) to follow Rach’s loopy thoughts and Malloy’s mannered musicianship. And when the lights come up on all this noisy spectacle, what lingers in the mind is the composer’s deeply felt but simply stated wish: “I would like to be remembered.”