Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812
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Theater review by Adam Feldman. Kazino (Off Broadway). By Dave Malloy. Dir. Rachel Chavkin. With Malloy, Phillipa Soo, Lucas Steele. 2hrs 40mins. One intermission.
Revisiting a favorite show, like reuniting with a lover after months of separation, can be a source of concern. Has it changed since last I saw it? Have I? Was it as lovely as I thought, or was I swayed by all the vodka? Dave Malloy’s Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 was the best thing I saw in a theater last year, when it played at Ars Nova; now it has reopened at Kazino, a sumptuous pop-up venue in the Meatpacking District that—in accordance with the musical’s immersive approach—doubles as a Russian supper club. I needn’t have worried: Natasha, Pierre is bigger but as beautiful as ever.
Director Rachel Chavkin’s restaging preserves the sense of convivial welcome that makes the show feel magical. An eight-piece band is scattered throughout the room, which has been designed with playful imagination by Mimi Lien; the cast of ten, luxuriously costumed by Paloma Young and newly augmented with a chorus of six, mingles with an audience seated at cabaret-style tables. (The price of admission, steeper than it used to be but worth every kopeck, includes a modest dinner and a shot of booze.) The closeness of the quarters is essential to the way Natasha, Pierre operates; at such close range, the more raucous numbers in Malloy’s highly eclectic score—including several that dabble in electronica—come to vibrant life, while the more delicate ones have room to spin their silk.
Adapted from a brief section of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the musical is set in 19th-century Moscow but is also straightforwardly a performance in the present; the tone alternates charmingly between artful literary seriousness and artless modern directness. In the opening song, the cast offers a cheerful cheat sheet of the characters (“Dolokhov is fierce / Hélène is a slut / Anatole is hot / Marya is old-school / Sonya is good / Natasha is young / And Andrey isn’t here”), and the program includes a diagram of their relationships lest the audience get confused. As performed by Chavkin’s splendid ensemble, however, Tolstoy’s bittersweet tale of romance and betrayal comes through clearly on its own.
Malloy himself, scruffy of face and voice, plays Pierre, a decent man mired in alcoholic self-disgust and inured to the infidelities of his wife, Hélène (a velvety Amber Gray). The exquisite Phillipa Soo is Natasha, new to Moscow and disastrously taken with the peacockish Anatole (Lucas Steele, strutting and singing adeptly). Radiant in her naïveté, Soo is also deeply affecting in her eventual disgrace; and Brittain Ashford, as Natasha’s friend Sonya, brings ravishing simplicity and depth to her melancholy solo in the second act.
Although much of the plot is unhappy, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 is ultimately a joyous affair. The celestial phenomenon of the title makes a late entrance as the occasion for a touching envoi—the last of many subtle twists, narrative and musical, that Malloy threads into the show. Each scene takes you by surprise; each song takes you for a whirl. Inventive and thoughtful, knowingly sincere, this is theater like no other in New York. It grounds you and transports you at once, and leaves you beaming with pleasure.—Adam Feldman
Follow Adam Feldman on Twitter: @FeldmanAdam
[Note: The following is Adam Feldman's review of the 2012 production of Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 at Ars Nova.]
I know, I know: A two-and-a-half-hour sung-through adaptation of War and Peace, performed in an immersive environment, may sound as appealing as the Great Retreat from Moscow. But Dave Malloy’s Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 feels like a party from start to end: lively, intelligent and utterly engrossing. Seated at cabaret tables, spectators snack on pierogi and black bread, plus limitless shots of chilled vodka; in the pretention-puncturing opening number, the company urges them to consult the program freely (“Cuz it’s a complicated Russian novel / Everyone’s got nine different names”). Directed by Rachel Chavkin with spectacular attention to detail and charm, this may be the least invasive evening of interactive theater I have ever attended; it glows with hospitality.
The slice of Tolstoy’s novel adapted by Malloy has very little war, but none of its characters are at peace; high-strung high-society Muscovites, they are buffeted by competing forces of passion, honor and depression. The dazzlingly variegated score—which covers musical terrain from folk songs through rock, R&B and house music—captures their story in stirring and surprising ways; it is superbly performed throughout by a cast led by Malloy as the self-loathing Pierre, Lucas Steele as the handsome but disreputable Anatole, Brittain Ashford as the soulful Sonya and Phillipa Soo (in a magical debut) as the lovely, naive Natasha. Space permits no more enthusiasm, except to say that this is a rare and marvelous event: amid the din of New York, an oasis of artful illumination.—Adam Feldman