Prelude of Love

Hale Centre Theatre’s “Prelude of Love” is an uncomfortable combination of two shows: a beautiful piano concert, and a fairly average romance.

Set in Wyoming in 1908, the heroine is headstrong young Lillian Clement (Melanie Richardson), a classically trained pianist who feels unappreciated in her hick hometown, where the folks prefer Stephen Foster to Chopin (though they still ask her to play, for free, almost every night).

Lillian is obsessed with the piano, to the exclusion of more traditional things like getting married, which by all accounts she should be doing with Roy Callen (Quinn A. Dietlein). When a bigshot named Paul Walkerman (Brandon S. Jones) comes along and gives her a chance to go to New York and play at Carnegie Hall, she takes it — even though it means leaving Roy behind.

Will he wait for her? Will she have to choose between her music and her love? Unlike most Ruth Hale-written plays, which are supposed to be funny but aren’t, this one isn’t even supposed to be — and it works pretty well, with richer characters and better dialogue than usual (though one character does quote a newspaper article as saying “the audience was surprisingly startled,” which I hope no real newspaper would ever say). The dilemmas Lillian faces are real, and there are no black-and-white answers to them. Her final decision will please some viewers and annoy others, but at least it provokes thought of some kind.

The problem is that this is really a 45-minute story — despite its mostly good dialogue, there’s nothing particularly compelling about it — stretched out to 2 hours with a lot of piano playing. The show seems to have been written mostly as an excuse for the lead character to tickle the ivories every chance she gets: she’s playing for Roy to sing, or re-creating her night at Carnegie Hall, or improvising on a four-note melody that Paul came up with. Either the piano-playing is getting in the way of the story, or the story is getting in the way of the piano-playing. Whatever the case, just as you’re starting to get interested in one, the other one interrupts.

As a play, it’s so-so. As a piano concert, it’s fantastic. As both, it’s frustrating.

Ruth Hale herself plays the grandma in the show, a tart-tongued old gal who pronounces “Bach” as “Batch” and who dispenses spicy grandmotherly advise at every turn. Audiences adore Ruth Hale, and there’s plenty of her in this show.

Personally, I think this play should be called "Prelude TO Love," not "Prelude OF Love." If they're going for the idea that it's a prelude -- that is, a precursor -- to love, then obviously "to" is the right word. If they just mean that it's a musical prelude on the subject of love, then "of" is the right word, and it's kind of a lame title.

It was almost funny to watch the play come up with excuses for Lillian to play the piano. Every bit of dialogue seemed to be leading up to it, like it existed for no other purpose than to set up a piano performance. If you'll pardon the crude analogy, it was like a porn movie, only instead of there being a random sex scene, Lillian would play the piano. (Now that I think of it, you probably WON'T pardon the crude analogy. Sorry.)