After riffing on War and Peace in 2012’s immersive pop opera Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, crazy-ambitious composer Dave Malloy is back in Russia: This time, he’s delving into “the hypnotized mind” of Sergei Rachmaninoff in Preludes, part of Lincoln Center’s LCT3 season at the Claire Tow Theater through July 19. And hey, if Malloy can make Tolstoy’s phone-book-sized Russian novel sing, why not the tale of a turn-of-the-20th-century composer with writer’s block?
But Malloy’s inspiration also proves to be an impediment. Rachmaninoff’s music dominates the proceedings, accounting for more than half of the musical numbers—of Malloy’s originals, many of those are “suggested” (the program’s wording) by Rachmaninoff works. A few of the suggested-by pieces are breathtakingly, lump-in-the-throat beautiful—particularly “Mountains,” sung by musical director/virtuoso pianist Or Matias, who spends most of the show seated at a grand piano as Rachmaninoff. Tunes like “Loop,” a more-silly-than-trippy techno-infused thump-fest, are just puzzlements. And ultimately, there’s precious little of the breathless, giddy style that propelled Malloy’s Natasha, Pierre… and even his 2014 song cycle Ghost Quartet (“Tchaikovsky’s Child’s Song,” with its yodeling break and playfully layered piano-synthesizer lines, is a welcome exception).
Another tricky bit of business: Matias is not the only Rachmaninoff on stage. There’s also Rach (played by Tony-winning Matilda villain Gabriel Ebert), his other half, so to speak, the one who bickers with his fiancée (the radiant Nikki M. James, a Tony winner for The Book of Mormon) and confesses his innermost insecurities to hypnotherapist Nikolai Dahl (a warm Eisa Davis, in inexplicably airy 21st-century garb). Sometimes, Rach’s speeches are fascinating—like when he’s talking about writing his career-defining prelude, explaining that “C-sharp minor is kind of the coolest key,” and how it feels “dark and silken under your fingers, like midnight, but a really sophisticated midnight.” But more often than not, they’re keeping us from hearing Rachmaninoff’s music. As Chekhov (Chris Sarandon) tells Rach, “use more silence.”
If you were wondering what the heck Chekhov is doing here, you wouldn’t be the only one. Tchaikovsky and Tolstoy also make cameos, as does Tsar Nicholas II. (The game Sarandon plays ’em all and then some.) Malloy also throws in opera singer and Moonstruck vet Feodor Chaliapin (Joseph Keckler, saddled with the show’s worst song but rewarded with Paloma Young’s best costume). And where did they get that bottle of Tito’s Vodka? Malloy does call Preludes a “musical fantasia,” but there’s a fine line between the creative and the chaotic. C+