Lyric Stage’s Genre-Defying ‘Preludes’ Is A Trip

Cast of ‘Preludes’ at Boston Lyric Stage

by Shelley A. Sackett

I readily admit I am one of those theatergoers who enjoys plot, dialogue and purpose. You can throw in all the special effects, time warp gimmickry and non sequiturs you want, but they are the icing, not the cake. You can give me experimental, but don’t leave out the context.

So it took me some time to figure out exactly what was going on in ‘Preludes.’ In fact, it took me until intermission when I both googled a synopsis and read the playbill’s fine print.

The setting of Dave Malloy’s mash up of musical and drama is inside the mind of Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff. The play opens in 1900 Moscow. “Rach” (Dan Prior) is having a bad day. In fact, he’s had a bad three years’ worth of bad days, starting with the ruinous premiere of his “First Symphony.” Critics viciously panned the piece (and the drunk conductor), leaving Rach in a creative void, wondering if he would ever write again.

Dan Prior and Aimee Doherty

He also fears that his wildly successful “Prelude in C-sharp Minor,” which he wrote as a 19-year-old, was the sum total of his career. Does he have talent or only luck? Was that the best piece he will ever pen? And most importantly, how did he do it?

At the urging of his frustrated fiancée, piano teacher Natalya (Kayla Shimizu), Rach visits hypnotherapist Nikolai Dahl (Aimee Doherty) for help clawing his way out of this black hole of asphyxiating self-doubt and paralyzing writer’s block. Dahl puts him into a trance and, with the audience in lock step, Rach takes a tour of every trauma that paved his path to the present.

Although this is no yellow brick road, the journey is peppered with its own version of winged monkeys, wicked witches and ruby red shoes. People float in and out of Rach’s internal world of jumbled stream of consciousness and disorienting ordeals. Chekhov Tchaikovsky and Tolstoy (all played by the always fabulous Will McGarrahan) show up, offering varying degrees of encouragement and torture. Where does art come from? they ask unhelpfully.

Prior, Kayla Shimizu

Against the gossamer confusion of Rach’s mind are shimmering tidbits of actual plot. His impending marriage to his first cousin Natalya requires the permission of the Czar, and the two discuss and plan their audience with him. Rach’s personal and professional struggles are likewise real and earthbound.

And then there is the brilliance behind Malloy’s use of music and musicians as integral parts of his theatrical vision. A Liberace-worthy white piano occupies center stage. Dan Rodriguez (also Musical Director), in formal attire, plays a combination of Rachmaninoff, Malloy and Rachmaninoff/Malloy hybrid pieces throughout the two hour (one intermission) production. (Thank goodness the volume was lower during the second act. It drowned out the actors during the first half, adding to audience frustration).

A heartbeat like rhythm is a cloud cover for the stage. The use of classical, electro-pop and musical loops lend an excitement and wildness. The 13 musical numbers give Malloy and the actors a chance to show their musical chops. Every duet is resplendent, especially those with Prior and Shimizu. Anthony Pires, Jr. is a showstopper as Chaliapin, his movements as lithe as his baritone is full-bodied.

Although ‘Preludes’ floats in the metaphorical ephemeral, it also celebrates Rachmaninoff’s music, legacy and determination to find his own creative agency. Malloy and Lyric Stage Company have given us an opportunity to expand our theatrical horizons, loosen the reins and just go with the flow, and for that we thank them. For more information and tickets, go to:

‘Preludes’ — Music, Lyrics, Book and Orchestration by Dave Malloy. Directed by Courtney O’Connor; Music Direction by Dan Rodriguez; Scenic Design by Shelley Barish; Costume Design by Rachel Padula-Shufelt; Lighting Design by Karen Perlow; Sound Design by Andrew Duncan Will. Presented by The Lyric Stage Company of Boston, 140 Clarendon St., Boston through February 5.

Fablemeister Spielberg Spins Gold With ‘The Fablemans.’

Gabriel LaBelle stars in “The Fablemans.” COURTESY OF UNIVERSAL PICTURES

By Shelley A. Sackett

According to Tolstoy, all happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Since his cinematic directorial debut in 1974, Steven Spielberg has explored that notion with “The Sugarland Express,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” and more. He is arguably as known for capturing the slow burn of internal stories about broken families as he is for thrilling with his explosive, external, blockbuster special effects of sharks, UFOs and ferocious dinosaurs.

With “The Fablemans,” Spielberg turns his master storytelling camera inward and recreates his own Jewish middle-class upbringing. Through his films and in countless interviews, he has made no secret that his parents’ divorce when he was 19 left an indelible mark, and that comes through loud and clear in the film. Yet, in inimitable Spielberg style, this fictionalized autobiography seamlessly fuses a child’s wide-eyed, tender sentimentality with an adult’s unblinking eye that pierces through the gauzy coziness to reveal an underbelly of dysfunction.

This being a movie – cowritten with the brilliant Tony Kushner – by and about Spielberg, it begins at the exact place and moment where he considers his life began: at the movies. It is 1952, and 8-year-old Spielberg stand-in Sammy is being dragged to his first film by his father, Burt (Paul Dano) and mother, Mitzi (the always luminous Michelle Williams). That film, Cecile B. DeMille’s epic “The Greatest Show on Earth,” ends with a spectacular train crash that was created with miniatures.

Sammy is speechless, which his practical, computer engineer father and imaginative, classically trained pianist mother interpret according to their temperaments. Burt, who assumes Sammy is frozen with fear, scientifically explains about persistence of vision and 24 frames per second. Mitzi, tuned in to the magic and mysteries of life, gets why Sammy is thunderstruck. “Movies are dreams,” she knowingly whispers in his ear.

Sammy remains obsessed with the train crash, and for Hanukkah receives what he has unambiguously requested – a model train set. Burt is delighted his son has taken an interest in something mechanical. That delight evaporates, however, when Sammy unveils the real reason behind his request: He wants to recreate the finale train crash sequence over and over again.

In the first glimmer of family tension, his parents react in different ways. Infuriated, Burt chides Sammy for not appreciating “nice things.” Mitzi encourages her son’s creativity and suggests he shoot the train crash with Burt’s Kodak movie camera so he can rewatch it as many times as he wants without pummeling the trains into dust.

Sammy shoots his film with the multiple, dynamic angles and innate editing skills that Mitzi recognizes as genius and that will set the trajectory of his life’s passion and profession. One can’t help wondering what Spielberg’s career might have looked like if his first film had been “High Noon,” “Monkey Business” or “Singin’ in the Rain,” also 1952 mega releases.

When the film switches gears and decades and enters the Fablemans’ home in New Jersey, we are introduced to the rest of the tight-knit family through teenage Sammy’s eyes. Played by the sensitive and understated Gabriel LaBelle, he now has better filmmaking equipment, which he uses to chronicle the clan and their unguarded interactions.

Burt’s kvetching mother, Hadassah (a spot-on Jeannie Berlin) is sharp-tongued, immune to boundaries and insightful. She is a toxic foil to her daughter-in-law’s mercurial ways. Williams plays Mitzi, the heart and human dynamo of the film, with open translucence and an uncanny ability to channel her emotions onto her face. Burt (Dano) is exquisitely subtle – decent, stable and boring – and is no match for his wild-child wife. Filling that role is hale and hearty Bennie (the affable, huggable Seth Rogan), Burt’s work friend and an honorary Fableman. Only Hadassah, who is also part soothsayer, picks up on the chemistry between Bennie and Mitzi, foreshadowing the trouble to come.

Burt’s promotions take the family (and Bennie) to Arizona, where Sammy continues to hone his skills and figure out the power his movies can have to placate, manipulate, woo, glamorize and humiliate. His introduction comes when Burt demands he postpone shooting a scheduled war film and instead make a film about their recent camping trip to cheer up Mitzi, whose mother just died. “You’ll learn how the editing machine works,” he coaxes, adding as an irresistible kicker, “It’ll make your mother feel better.”

While editing, Sammy uncovers indisputable proof of the intimate relationship between Bennie and his mother, unleashing what he recognizes will be gales of destruction rather than the gentle winds of healing his father envisioned.

Shortly thereafter, Burt moves the family to California (this time without Bennie) and the film shifts gears and focus, becoming more plot-driven as Sammy navigates life as the only Jewish kid in a school dominated by antisemitic jocks and Mitzi tries – and fails – to navigate life without Bennie.

Scene-stealing cameos by David Lynch (as movie director John Ford) and Judd Hirsch (as Mitzi’s circus performer and storyteller Uncle Boris) play to a crowd Spielberg already has eating out of his hand.

More than a stroll down one man’s memory lane, however, “The Fablemans” is also a magical mystery tour about life and its inherent beauty and messiness. It’s about figuring out who you are, what makes you happy, and then going for it, full steam ahead. “Art will give you crowns in heaven and laurels on Earth. But it’ll tear your heart out and leave you lonely,” warns Uncle Boris. “Art is no game.”

Luckily for his gazillions of fans, Spielberg was up to the challenge. He recognized his own talent and followed his passion, leaving his mark on his own brand of cinematic gold in crowd-pleasing films – like ‘The Fablemans’ – that leave audiences sated, entertained. and smiling through their tears. Θ

High Spirited ‘Chicken & Biscuits’ Marks Front Porch’s First Solo Production

Cast of ‘Chicken & Biscuits’ by The Front Porch Arts Collective at Suffolk University Modern Theatre

By Shelley A. Sackett

The architectural bones of Suffolk University’s Modern Theater are a set made to order for ‘Chicken & Biscuits,’ the first solo production by The Front Porch Arts Collective, a Black theater company whose previous presentations have been in collaboration with other larger companies.

With its dark wood pews and balconies and Cluny-esque murals, we feel like part of a congregation even before the setting shifts from Reverend Reginald and Baneatta Mabry’s New Haven home to the sunlit church where Reginald will preside over the funeral of revered Pastor Bernard (“B”) Jenkins, his former father-in-law.

The play opens in the Mabry home, with Baneatta and Reginald preparing to attend Bernard’s funeral. Baneatta sits alone, having a private tête-a-tête with God, with Whom she is on intimate and joking terms. Within easy eavesdropping distance, the audience gets the lay of the land. All is not peace and love between Baneatta and her younger sister, Beverly, who buttoned-up Baneatta describes as a wild woman. The two have not seen each other in a while and, based on that most recent encounter, Baneatta anticipates the worst.

Reginald comes downstairs, interrupting Baneatta’s conversation. With B’s passing, Reginald inherited his pulpit. Bernard’s funeral is his first lead sermon in this new role, and he’s as nervous as his wife, but for different reasons. B was the glue that held both family and church together, leaving Reginald with pretty big shoes to fill. That his opening act will be B’s eulogy is daunting enough without the threat that the two rivalrous sisters will be at each other’s throats.

“Today should be a day of memory and healing for the family, not chaos,” he reminds Baneatta, offering her the chance to talk.

“I already talked about it with Jesus,” she replies, to her husband’s visible relief.

The scene shifts to Beverly and her 15-year-old daughter La’Trice as they get ready for the funeral, and we immediately understand the Mabry’s trepidation. Beverly is smoking a cigarette in her nonsmoking hotel room, defiantly blowing the smoke out an opened window. She is as brazen, brassy and flamboyant as Baneatta is proper, reserved and patrician. She is a spitfire to be reckoned with and she is also VERY loud.

For her father’s funeral, she has chosen a sausage-casing tight and revealing blue lounge singer dress and rhinestone studded belt and stilettos (Costume design by Zoe Sundra) . Even her aspiring rapper daughter, dressed in raggedy chic hip hop, asks if she maybe should tone it down a bit. Beverly will hear none of it. This funeral is a celebration, she says; and besides, there may be some good husband hunting to be had.

Rounding out the family are Kenny, Reginald and Baneatta’s gay son, and his sister Simone.  Kenny has brought his white, Jewish partner Logan to the funeral, hoping that his mother and sister will finally accept him for who he is, as his grandfather did. Simone, unlucky in love and as serious and perfection-obsessed as her mother, is nursing a recently trampled heart, searching for her lost self-esteem.

There is also a shadow lurking in the wings, a mysterious series of phone calls from someone Baneatta does not want to hear from, especially not on the day of her daddy’s funeral. (No spoilers here!)

As the family gathers, each member’s backstory is exposed, along with their strengths and Achilles’ heels. The conversations leading up and after the funeral service are meaty and thought-provoking. La’Trice confides in Simone that she wonders if she would have turned out a different person if she had known her father, whom she has never met. Simone confesses to Kenny that after her Black boyfriend dumped her for a white girl, she stopped eating for three months. “I can’t understand why God would want me to hurt this way,” she tells him.

For his part, Kenny wants to be open and accepted, something his mother and sister have refused to do. “A life style is something you choose. My sexuality is who I am,” he explains to Simone. “How do you find yourself while you’re trying to hide yourself?”

While the family may present as dysfunctional and unhealable, Reginald’s brilliant eulogy and each member’s parting words show how much their father and grandfather touched each of their lives. “You weren’t perfect, but you loved us perfectly,” Baneatta shares.

The play, however, and especially this production, is a lot more than somber reflections on family dynamics. God, shame, love, loyalty, joy, secrets and empathy are all given their moment in the sun.

It is also a hilarious dramedy with a script full of belly laughs. When the mysterious caller shows up at the funeral, a slow-motion meltdown of destruction set to a Rap song ensues. Thanks to Lyndsay Allyn Cox’s direction and her talented cast, there are also engaging performances all around. Robert Cornelius brings his honeyed baritone and charismatic presence to the role of Reverend Reginald Mabry. Jacqui Parker plays Baneatta with grace, gravitas and soul. She is the cornerstone of ‘Chicken & Biscuits,’ and Parker commands the stage, grounding and centering the play from start to finish.

Thomika Bridwell gives it her all — and then some — when playing the irrepressible side of Beverly, but truly shines when modulating and portraying her quieter, more contemplative counterpart.

Lorraine Kanyike brings a freshness to La’Trice, and Adrian Peguero and Sabrina Lynne Sawyer stand out as siblings no longer rivalrous. But it is Mishka Yarovoy who chews up the scenery as Logan, Kenny’s neurotic Woody Allenesque partner whose spot on physical comedy is matched by his impeccable timing.

Erik D. Diaz’s economical and effective set magically transforms the Mabry home into a church by removing of a few panels to replace windows overlooking a tree-lined street with stained glass panes. M. Berry’s lighting design and Anna Drummond’s sound design complete the effect.

By the end of the one hour and 45 minute (no intermission) performance, the audience has bonded with this family and is ready to join them in their cathartic denouement of digging into chicken, biscuits and all the fixings, Bernard’s favorite dinner. After all, we’ve been riding shotgun on the messy journey that pulled them apart. It’s only fair that we share the glory too.

Chicken & Biscuits’ — Written by Douglas Lyons. Directed by Lyndsay Allyn Cox; Scenic Design by Erik D. Diaz; Costume Design by Zoe Sundra; Lighting Design by M. Berry; Sound Design by Anna Drummond. Presented by The Front Porch Arts Collective at Suffolk University Modern Theatre, 525 Washington St., Run has ended.