“it assaults our senses and soothes them in equal measure”
Aged just nineteen, Sergei Rachmaninoff wrote his Prelude in C-sharp minor to world-wide acclaim, was commissioned to write his first symphony and he was engaged to the love of his life. He seemed to have it all, yet within months a depressive paranoia and anxiety had stopped him in his tracks; a darkness that no doubt came from within but was also prompted in part by Tchaikovsky’s death, and by the effortful completion of his own Symphony No. 1 which was subsequently panned by the critics. The conductor, an alcoholic, was drunk at the premiere. But Rachmaninoff’s writer’s block had already set in. He was already displeased with his composition, feeling he had peaked too early with his Prelude, and the Orthodox church was thwarting his plans for marriage.
Composing had become impossible. How do you escape the darkness and come back into the light? All this, and more, is explored in Dave Malloy’s “Preludes” which examines, in extraordinary and beautifully surreal ways, the true story of this particular episode of his life. A musical fantasia set in the hypnotised mind of Sergei Rachmaninoff.
This is not just another musical about a tortured artist. Malloy, who wrote the book, music, lyrics and the orchestrations has crafted an enigma. It defies categories, but also mixes them. It feels experimental but is perfectly formed, it lulls you into its trance-like dreamscape but keeps your attention razor sharp; it mixes the past, present and future. We are in a world where Mahler, Reggae, Beethoven and Doo-Wop can share the same phrase, where Acid Trance weaves its rhythms into the phrases of a Piano Concerto.
The starting point is the composer’s session with his therapist Nikolai Dahl (Rebecca Caine). “How was your day?” she asks – not the question to ask a damaged, depressed artistic genius three years into a stifling breakdown. Keith Ramsay, as Rachmaninoff (or rather ‘Rach’), launches into a monologue which sets the pace for a tour de force performance. Ramsay is the picture of unsettled alienation; wide-eyed and wild-eyed, uncertain of his worth. Intense, chilling and hypnotising. His words bleed into Malloy’s haunting melodies which in turn flow into Rachmaninoff’s timeless compositions.
We are never too sure if the surrounding characters are in the composer’s mind or not, but under Alex Sutton’s riveting direction they are brought to vivid life. They circle him, cajole him and bravely try to help him. Georgia Louise, as Natalya, is pivotal to restoring the composer’s state of mind with her patience, stretched to the limit at times. There are moments when their voices collide in their duets when you can forget everything. Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky and Tsar Nicholas II brilliantly spill out of Rach’s mind into the camera shot, thanks to the vigour, versatility and virtuosity of Steven Serlin. Norton James, as Russian opera singer Chaliapin, plays with our minds with a Mephistophelean portrayal that verges on psychedelic madness. Crucial to the piece is Tom Noyes at the piano, letting the true genius of Rachmaninoff reveal itself through the musical accompaniment.
The production transfers from stage to camera in an astounding blaze of glory. Aided by Andrew Exeter’s lighting and Andrew Johnson’s eclectic sound it assaults our senses and soothes them in equal measure. Contradictions have never been more harmonious. The mix of classical music, musical theatre, trance beats, neon lights; introspection and overt humour, reality and fantasy, past and present, just would not work on paper. But on stage and on camera it is an intoxicating brew. Dark and beautiful. And hypnotic.
“an extraordinary amalgam of film and theatre, brought vividly to life by an extraordinary array of talent”
On paper, “BKLYN The Musical” appears to be an ambitious musical to stage. The narrative scale is quite epic, moving from sixties Paris to downtown Brooklyn, crossing not just the Atlantic but a couple of decades too, with an imagined stopover in Vietnam. Backstories mingle with imagined futures, dreams and alternative realities. A recent staging at Greenwich Theatre in 2019 revealed some of these shortcomings in an otherwise well received production; described variously as brave and bold.
Fast forward eighteen months and imagine the courage and faith a company must need to tackle this musical in the midst of a pandemic. Lambert Productions have done just that and their own particular take, part theatre part film, is quite simply stunning. Simplicity is the key. Filmed at the Ugly Duck space near London Bridge, it uses the sparse, semi-derelict atmosphere of the venue to wondrous effect. The artistic decisions, seemingly small, have a massive impact. Stripped back we can absorb the narrative and get right to the heart of the characters.
“BKLYN” is a play within a play. It opens with street singer (Newtion Matthews) drawing a like-minded band of itinerant troubadours together to tell the story of Brooklyn; born of a mother living in Paris and an American father who disappears from their lives. Orphaned at a young age, Brooklyn later uses her inborn talents as a singer to try to find fame, fortune and her father in America. All she has is an unfinished lullaby; a wordless leitmotif her father wrote that her mother passed onto her. Finding the refrain will hopefully lead her to her fairy-tale ending.
As the story unfolds, the players slip into the characters being portrayed. The parallel lives are depicted by deft costume changes, camera angles and lighting effects. Dean Johnson’s cinematography and Sam Diaz’s editing are flawless, matched by Andrew Exeter’s design and Matt Davies’ lighting. Although you are aware of the multi-take filming process, director Dean Johnson’s masterstroke is that you constantly forget. The piece feels very real, very live and, as a result, it is a very emotional experience.
But save the best for last. The cast. Again – small in scale but epic in projection and talent. But first the score. A blistering catalogue of soaring power ballads interspersed with up-tempo R&B soul that sweeps you off your feet. Lyrically they occasionally flirt with Disney sentimentality, but the cast collectively grab these floating nuances and crush them into the ground. Follow your dreams is the overriding message of hope, but you have to dig deep and dig up the dirt. It’s a “Sidewalk Fairy-tale” intones the street singer, steering the show well clear of schmaltz.
Newtion Matthew narrates, as the street singer who morphs into the ‘Magic Man’, a kind of fairy-godfather. With the voice of the ‘Soul Man’ he guides us, lifts us and eventually breaks our hearts when he delivers the final twist in the tale. Emma Kingston as the eponymous Brooklyn shatters all preconceptions of the fairy-tale princess with her spirit of steel and voice of crystal. Jamie Muscato, even if a little fresh faced and youthful, convincingly portrays the drug addled Vietnam veteran. His letters never reach Brooklyn’s mother, the tragic and ill-fated Faith, touchingly played by Sejal Keshwala. The vocal demands are huge, but the voices are pushed to their limits, but never beyond. In particular Marisha Wallace whose vocal performance truly stands out. She is ‘Paradice’, the villain of the piece who demands that we love to hate her. But we just end up loving her instead.
We are watching a show in a disused warehouse, but at times we could be in Madison Square Gardens, at others in a Brooklyn back alley. The panoramic sense of location is matched by the sweeping lyricism of the songs. With us barely noticing, a verse can chuck out a diatribe on homelessness, immigration, racism and the empty façade of the American Dream. These messages are quite subliminal and never encroach – the overall effect is purely emotive.
The overriding message though is one that you’ll want to pass onto as many people as possible, which is that this is an extraordinary amalgam of film and theatre, brought vividly to life by an extraordinary array of talent.