7:23 pm Oct. 17, 2012
When Once opened off-Broadway last winter, the musical set an unusually intimate tone by having its set—a Dublin pub—function as an actual bar before the show, so audience members could step onstage and down a pint.
A new off-off-Broadway musical based on War and Peace goes even further: The whole theater has been transformed into a bar (this time, it's Moscow), with free bottles of vodka (as well as platters of brown bread, pierogis, and sour cream) on every table. So maybe it's the liquor talking. But just as Once blossomed into a warm, emotionally resonant, and musically rich evening, so does Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812—adapted from a slice of Tolstoy's sprawling novel—blossom into something unexpected, wonderful, and even poignant.
Composer Dave Malloy has created one of the most dramatically intriguing and musically daring pieces of theater you'll see this season. Part of the trio of writer-performers behind the 2010 show Three Pianos, a riff on Franz Schubert's Winterreise song cycle that also featured free alcohol (is there a pattern here?), Malloy has already demonstrated that he knows how to create a score that's varied and dynamic, recalling well-known styles while staying contemporary and cohesive. Here, he uses a half-dozen musicians playing everything from cello and bass to oboe and clarinet, but (as in Once) the actors also play a variety of instruments, essentially adding another 10 pieces to the band: piano, drums, acoustic guitar, accordion, and more. The result is a textured blend of sounds that shifts, sometimes effortlessly and other times deliberately abruptly, from Russian folk music to electronic rock to operetta. The audience, just several dozen people arranged at tables and banquettes in a small red-curtained room, is constantly surrounded by the music, as performers occupy every corner, weave through the crowd (occasionally joining audience members at their tables), or stride around the perimeter on a raised wraparound stage.
While the story has a lot of characters, it's not nearly as complicated as it first seems; the opening number, "Prologue," introduces everyone succinctly with tongue in cheek: "It's a complicated Russian novel, everyone's got nine different names." (Besides, there's a synopsis in the program that also graphically depicts the web of relationships, in case you forget.) At the center is the young and lovely countess Natasha, who's engaged to a soldier named Andrey, who's off fighting in a war. While Natasha is visiting Moscow ("where faded and fading princesses live"), however, she falls in love with another man, a charming (and already married) cad named Anatole. Of course, their affair is doomed, but a lot happens along the way: a duel, a high-speed troika ride, a suicide attempt, not to mention betrayal, seduction, and a very uncomfortable visit with a mad prince. Thanks to Malloy's focused libretto and the strong cast, as well as Rachel Chavkin's fast-paced direction, it's all easy to follow and never dull for a moment.
As Natasha, Phillipa Soo carries the show with aplomb: She starts off committed to her fiancé, wistful in her sweet ballad "If He Were Here," but when she meets Anatole (the seductive Lucas Steele) while she's watching an opera—a hilarious string of brief snippets sewn together with smart lighting—her resolve quickly falters, and her later songs betray her confused mix of anger, lust, and guilt. Many of the show's best moments fall to the women: Anatole's snake of a sister Helene (played by the fiery Amber Gray) sweet-talks Natasha into her brother's arms in a pivotal scene, singing, "Your fiancé would want you to have fun rather than be bored to death…It's such a shame to bury pearls in the country." Natasha's cousin Sonya (Brittain Ashford), at first a meek wallflower, bursts suddenly to life in perhaps the evening's strongest number, the heart-breaking "Sonya Alone," as she struggles over how best to protect her cousin—"I will hold you back by force … I won't see you disgraced." And Natasha's protective godmother Marya (played perfectly by Amelia Workman) finally puts an end to the affair with her powerful performance during "In My House."
Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 is both comedy and tragedy, period piece and modern musical, innovative at every turn and thoroughly compelling. Not every effort is a success, of course. There's a comic scene with a troika driver that should be funnier. There's a techno-flavored song in a nightclub that doesn't quite gel. And Malloy himself, while an expert musician, switching instruments repeatedly throughout the show, isn't as strong a singer in his role as Pierre, the beleaguered but beloved cuckold who ultimately tries to repair the damage done to his friends and relatives during Natasha's stay in Moscow. Still, these are minor quibbles, B-plus moments in an A-plus show. And in the final moments, when Pierre gazes in wonder at a comet shooting across the sky—yet another instance of great work by lighting designer Bradley King—all is forgiven. Seated among the scattered performers and the musicians in this tiny room, the tipsy audience stares rapt at the approaching comet, everyone facing the same direction with eyes wide open, knowing that this kind of thing doesn't come around very often.
Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 is showing at Ars Nova, 511 W. 54th St. Tickets are $30. Call 212-352-3101.
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