Rach Meets Rachmaninoff

Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s "Preludes" is a unique yet disappointing musical theater work about the composer.

By - Apr 5th, 2022 03:42 pm
Natalie Ford (Natalya) and Joe Picchetti (Rach). Photo by Mark Frohna.

Natalie Ford (Natalya) and Joe Picchetti (Rach). Photo by Mark Frohna.

Both the setting and the idea behind Preludes intrigued me. So did the controlling hand of Jill Anna Ponasik, who has brought engaging musical ideas and fresh staging styles forward at the Skylight Music Theatre, the Florentine Opera Company and the group she heads, Milwaukee Opera Theatre, which is offering this work through April 9. Plus there were favorable reviews of the concept back in 2015 when the musical theater piece premiered in New York City.

But I cannot let readers be as misled by my intrigue as I was. You would have to have abnormal patience to pick and choose your way through this two-hour show, staying interested more in the ambiences than the execution of the dramatic ideas.

One ambience is certainly the setting. If you haven’t enjoyed the aura and the second-floor ballroom of the Women’s Club of Wisconsin, 813 E. Kilbourn Ave., you really should. It is a rare venue for theater. I first enjoyed the place as a college student and only rarely since at public events. For Preludes, performed afternoons and evening through April 9 (for tickets visit, the ballroom is arranged as a small theater, with considerable lighting effects to help out its rather narrow left-to-right staging opportunities. 

The idea is also intriguing — to more than history buffs who know the frame is factual. It received a recent boost in the news when Russian dictator Vladimir Putin accused the West and Ukraine of dehumanizing such Russian cultural icons as Rachmaninoff. Yet here we have an evening devoted to showing how lyrical as well as passionate the composer was, in a musical setting that combines his incredible piano creations with modern synthesizers and Western melodies and lyrics.

Russian composer and virtuoso pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1942) spent much of his later years in the US. But he also suffered three years of petrifying depression as a young man in Russia after his first symphony was lambasted by the press.

As the 19th century turned into the 20th, he was revived through hypnotherapy and the early ideas of Sigmund Freud to create some of his greatest work. He dedicated his emerging concerto to the amateur musician and physician who led him out of the darkness, Nikolai Dahl (played in the show by local actress Jenny Wanasek).

American composer Dave Malloy concocted Preludes with music, piano flourishes and lyrics much based on Rachmaninoff’s works and some flat-out inventions that require echo chambers and the lyric soprano of Natalie Ford as love interest Natalya.

Ponasik has envisioned it all as emanating from two synthesizers, played live by Marty Butorac and Dave Bonofiglio, plus one powerful grand piano center stage played constantly and impressively by musical director, pianist and restaurateur Ruben Piirainen (whose Sabrosa Café and Gallery has taken over the catering menu at the Broadway Theatre Center’s second floor dining room). 

The musical ideas – including a sense of a nightmare acoustic landscape accompanied by actors floating around the stage like puppet ghosts — may well bring fresh insights into the genius behind Rachmaninoff’s piano power, but mainly it remains an intellectual conceit, not a dramatic grabber.

The concept is that Piirainen is actually Rachmaninoff playing mindlessly while in poetic words and mental agitation actor Joe Picchetti as “Rach” attacks the trauma head on – and again and again. The barrage of words under the music stretches the ability of Picchetti to a breaking point. 

Building an evening around what had to be going through Rach or Rachmaninoff’s frozen mind – and emerging with brilliance after three years of useless depression – is actually the sort of mind meld theater can do well. But that isn’t the case here. The hallucination effects are never convincing. The attempt to frontally assault what is going on in Rach’s head, and the collection of Russian goaders and sympathizers that surround him (Chaliapin, Natalya his love interest, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Tchaikovsky and the Czar himself) come across as precious.

It also leaves some good singers and personable performers (Picchetti mainly but also Wanasek and Ford, plus Gage Patterson and Joel Kopischke) hung out to dry, relying too much on inherent stage craft or sheer singing power. If there are good songs in here, it is hard to isolate them.

A major problem is the ballroom itself and how it treats this sort of sound vibration. Voices trained in the spoken word disappear behind the piano and the synthesizers, no matter how hard the tech crew strains to create a balance. 

Usually director Ponasik would help us separate where the words should dominate or where they should disappear in the acoustic mix. Too often the space doesn’t allow this. 

There are scenes near the end where we sense where composer Malloy wanted to go if he could edit himself or had a director who would severely edit him. One scene relives Rachmaninoff’s feelings of triumph when he wrote “Prelude in C Minor” as a 19-year-old. Another scene lets him recall the drunken conductor and failure of his first symphony. But there are too many garbled or overdone poetic etudes in the 90 minutes before these moments.

Musically it makes us rethink and newly admire Rachmaninoff. But that’s a mental exercise, not the involving theater advertised.

Preludes Gallery

Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You’ll find his blog here and here.

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