I raved about the immersive theatrical experience that is “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1912” – a new type of dinner theater – when it was performed at Ars Nova last fall, and so was startled when one of the people with whom we were seated this time around stormed out.
This was not, I hasten to add, the instantly-infamous story of the woman who left in a rage after somebody threw her cellphone across the length of the dining room/theater because she had been using it during the show. My story is about a man who left in a huff during intermission, saying that “Natasha” was like “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson.”
That of course would count as a sterling recommendation in some quarters, a counterweight to the fear that a musical adapted from “War and Peace” by Leo Tolstoy might just be too intimidating. It’s not intimidating; it’s hip! It’s not an intellectual exercise; it’s a party! The producers might as well have paid this gentleman to compare it to the hip downtown deconstruction of Andrew Jackson that moved to Broadway.
And so I am going to rave again about this musical – but add a caveat.
“Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” has transferred, with cast largely intact, to a new location, Kazino, built expressly to house the show. There are differences. Kazino is a “temporary structure,” resembling a circus tent, set up in the chi-chi Meatpacking District, snuggled next to the entrance to the High Line and the Standard Hotel. The theater is perhaps three times the size of the Ars Nova space. The vodka no longer comes free with the price of the ticket. It costs $14 additional for each tiny glass.
But the performers along with the rest of the staff (about a third of whom are actually Russian!) still bring pierogi and Russian black bread – now supplemented by other foodstuffs (chicken! shrimp!). And though the space is less intimate, the designers (scenic, costume, lighting, sound and culinary) have made it just as awesome and inviting. There is still no real stage, the performers singing in the aisles and on the countertops and platforms that snake around the tables. Anatole and Natasha are just as likely to be embracing passionately about 18 inches from your nose, or Pierre to leave a packet of letters on your table, or doddering old Bolkonsky to sit down next to you, maybe even gallantly/lecherously kiss your hand.
The music is still tuneful and delicious, a wondrous contemporary opera (no dialogue at all) scented with rock and folk, klezmer and country, R&B and reggae, even techno. And the plot still works best for people who have read “War and Peace.”
The story is taken from one small section of Tolstoy’s massive book, the arrival of Natasha (stand-out Philippa Soo) in Moscow to await the return of her fiancé Andrey from the front lines; her seduction by Anatole (the seductive Lucas Steele) and her saving by Sonya (Brittain Ashford, who sings the lovely ballad, “Sonya Alone,”), and by family friend Pierre, played by David Malloy himself, the awesomely talented creator and composer of the musical.
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Malloy tries all sorts of tricks to make the sprawling story accessible to those unacquainted with the literary source. The entire cast sings the prologue to Malloy’s bouncy accordion music:
“There’s a war going on out there somewhere. And Andrey isn’t here.”
“And this is all in your program
You are at the opera
Gonna have to study up a little bit if you want to keep up with the plot, ‘cause it’s a complicated Russian novel. Everyone’s got nine different names.
So look it up in your program
We’d appreciate it, thanks a lot.”
And the program is helpful, containing a page-long synopsis that explains more than the lyrics do, and a two-page illustrated “family tree” showing the connections among the many characters.
But let us face the fact that the complications in the story are simply not as easy, nor as interesting, to follow for those who haven’t read Tolstoy’s novel — though surely it will inspire a few theatergoers to pick up the book. For better and for worse, the particular scenes that make up the musical are even less important to grasp at Kazino than they were at Ars Nova, for, like any happening downtown dining spot , “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” is becoming its own scene.
13th Street and Washington Street in the Meatpacking District
Written by Dave Malloy, adapted from War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Direction and musical staging by Rachel Chavkin
Scenic design by Mimi Lien, costume design by Paloma Young, lighting design by Bradley King, sound design by Matt Hubbs, choreography by Sam Pinkleton
Brittain Ashford as ‘Sonya,’ Gelsey Bell as ‘Princess Mary,’ Blake DeLong as ‘Bolkonsky/Andrey,’ Amber Gray as ‘Hélène,’ Ian Lassiter as ‘Dolokhov’ (through May 31st), Nick Choski as ‘Dolokhov’ (beginning June 1st), Dave Malloy as ‘Pierre,’ Grace McLean as ‘Marya D,’ Paul Pinto as ‘Balaga,’ Phillipa Soo as ‘Natasha,’ and Lucas Steele as ‘Anatole.’ Also: Nicholas Belton, Catherine Brookman, Luke Holloway, Azudi Onyejekwe, Mariand Torres and Lauren Zakrin.
Ticket prices: $125, includes dinner. Premium: $175
Running time: About two and a half hours including a 15-minute intermission.
Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 is scheduled to run through September 1.