7. Review of NATASHA, PIERRE AND THE GREAT COMET OF 1812
I saw this rock musical inspired by WAR AND PEACE last fall when it played in the much smaller space at Ars Nova on W. 54th Street. It was an ingeniously effective devised theatre work, and received so much positive feedback (including several Drama Desk nominations) that, after its limited run ended, it was picked up by a commercial producer and revived for a more extended run in this new downtown production. I hadn’t yet begun writing notices of the shows I was seeing, so I have no previous record to turn to in rekindling my memories, but it was easy enough to see that the new production, while hewing closely to the original in style and intention, is like a version of that show on steroids. Much of the same cast has returned, but the space is larger, the ambiance less funky and more sophisticated, the lighting more elaborate, the costumes upgraded, and a couple of new songs introduced.
The venue is a tent, called Kazino (as in Casino), built directly under the High Line at W. 13th and Washington Streets in the now very hip former meatpacking district. For $125, each audience member gets a meal before the show as well as a drink, alcoholic or otherwise. We attended the noon brunch on Sunday, with the show following at 12:30 (actually, closer to 12:45). Spectators sit at tiny cabaret tables on the main floor, at a curved bar, or in fancy banquettes. My wife and I sat on one of the elevated tiers, our seats being cushioned leatherette benches (with backs) and our table a tiny one too small to accommodate the various dishes of assorted foods served. It was rather clumsy and my wife’s knee hit it at one point, sending a glass crashing to the ground and requiring a man to sweep up the mess. She almost did it again later in the show, so if you’re at one of these tables, I advise you to sit there at your peril. The food was passable (you can check out the menu online), but our waitress (from Croatia) was sweet and helpful.
As this suggests, the space, designed by Mimi Lien, is like a large cabaret, and the action goes on all around you, sometimes at the table you’re sitting at, and often on the levels that run around the walls or rise above the main floor where most of the small tables are situated. In other words, the audience cannot help but be immersed in the action, often having to swivel in their seats to see what’s happening behind them.
NATASHA, PIERRE . . . is a sung-through show focusing on the tragic love story of the beautiful Natasha (Phillipa Soo) who comes to Moscow with her cousin, Sonya (Brittain Ashford), to stay with her strict godmother, Marya D (Grace McClean). She is betrothed to Andrey (Blake Delong), who goes off to fight in the wars, so that while he is away she becomes fair game for the handsome rake, Anatole (Lucas Steele), who seduces and, even though he’s married, attempts to elope with her. But complications ensue when Pierre (Dave Malloy), ordinarily feckless husband of Anatole’s cunning sister, Hélène (Amber Gray), intervenes and prevents Natasha (with whom he's in love) from eloping with Anatole. The program not only provides a synopsis of the action, but also has sketches of all the major characters, with arrows pointing from one to another to help decipher the potentially confusing relationships.
Bradley King has designed eye-boggling lighting effects, including an extended strobe sequence, and the constellation-like chandeliers do remarkable service in the multiple ways they’re used to illuminate the room. Paloma Young’s gorgeous period costumes seem more expensively authentic than those the original production was able to afford (this is a perception and may not be accurate). The musicians are placed in two locations, so the sound comes at you from multiple directions, and the actors, all wearing head mikes, sing with passion and power a score by Dave Malloy (who also plays Pierre) that sometimes seems merely rhythmic patter designed to move the plot along, but now and then soars into lovely melodies, some of them abetted by the cast singing in choral harmony. Everything—the music, the acting, the singing—is energetic and aggressively theatrical. Malloy himself has a raspy, Tom Waits-like tone, but the others have a wide range of musical qualities, capable of both rock and operatic vocals. The entire company is excellent, so singling anyone out from the ensemble would be difficult and I won’t even try.
NATASHA, PIERRE AND THE GREAT COMET OF 1812 are streaking across the lower Manhattan sky. Look up and see them before they vanish.