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Theatre in Review: Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 (Ars Nova)

The first law of the American theatre dictates that, in the future, everything will become a musical. This rule is immutable, the outcome inevitable. For example, many years ago, I used to make jokes about a musical based on Anna Karenina; I would entertain my friends and myself with ideas for kick-up-your-heels production numbers featuring a chorus of serfs, not to mention a really ripping train scene. Then one day, there I was, at the Circle in the Square Uptown, seeing a musical of Anna Karenina unfold before my disbelieving eyes. The show began with a number called "On a Train," and darn if the second act didn't feature a number called "Peasant's Idyll." I will draw a veil over the rest.

I bring up this particular memory because there's a new entry in the Tolstoyan tuner sweepstakes: Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, which is taken from, of all things, War and Peace. Before you get too dizzy, let me add that it is a relatively trim (two-and-a-half-hour) entertainment, forgoing battle scenes, analyses of Napoleon's characters, and meditations on the great grinding mill of history, focusing instead on the portion of the book featuring the innocent Natasha, whose infatuation with the scoundrel Anatole destroys her engagement to the soldier Andrei, with even more devastating consequences to come.

If you're going to dramatize any part of War and Peace, this is the most suitable portion, and Dave Malloy's new work, which you might call an indie pop opera, is not without its charms, especially in Rachel Chavkin's inventive production. Patrons enter Ars Nova, on 54th Street, through an alternate basement route; once inside, they find that the space has been turned into a kind of 19-century Russian tavern, the walls covered in red drapes on which hang dozens of 19th century genre paintings. Nestled into the room on various levels are tables for the audience members, as well as perches for musicians. Each table features a bottle of vodka and shot glasses. Just before the play begins, the cast enters, bearing plates of delicious black bread, sour cream, and pierogies. The action unfolds all around us. Attend Natasha, Pierre & and The Great Comet of 1812, and you may find yourself seated next to a string player, you may have your hand fondled romantically by a young rake, or a glass of vodka may be slammed down on your table by a drunken soldier.

The action begins on a promising note, with a prologue that wittily establishes the identity of each character while underlining the central fact of Andrei's absence -- he's off at war, leaving Natasha vulnerable to all sorts of influences -- which will set the story in motion. From the very beginning, however, there's the nagging question of tone, which dogs the show through most of its first half. The audience at the performance I attended seemed to anticipate a hilarious spoof -- and an early scene, in which everyone at a social event wrestles with each other's endlessly long name, seemed right in line with their expectations -- but they were quickly undeceived. It gradually becomes clear that the show is not a travesty, like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, nor is it a case of brazenly contemporary songs inserted into a classic text, as in the case of Spring Awakening. And, believe me, nobody has any interest in Boublil-and-Schoenberg-style bombast. Instead, it is a thoroughly-composed piece of musical theatre in which the story is filtered through a cool, skeptical, yet not entirely unsympathetic sensibility; the press release says that the score "merges Russian folk and classical music with indie rock, electronica, and organ-influenced cadences," and, really, I can't do better than that.

Purely considered in terms of intention, it seems to me that Malloy's approach to Tolstoy's novel is not unlike that of, say, a Giuseppe Verdi, raiding the works of Shakespeare and Dumas for subject matter that he and his librettists could put to their own uses. All comparisons end there, however. Malloy's score certainly has its moments -- at its best, it is sad, soulful, and just a tad sardonic, capturing at times the essential quality of Slavic ballads sung at 3am in a dimly lit bar populated by boozy émigrés -- especially in a sequence when Natasha feels the first frenzied rush of romantic love, when her companion Sonia worriedly watches her throwing away her future, or when a flurry of letters is used to illuminate everyone's romantic arrangements. But the score is also hurt by the lack of variety and invention, the constant flow of minor chords and run-on musical lines becoming monotonous. At times, the score threatens to become one long piece of recitative. Then there are Malloy's lyrics, which are written in a kind of blank verse, as when Sonia sings:

"Hard as it is/I watch my friend/In her unnatural state/Don't let her out of my sight/She trails off/Stares at nothing/Laughs at random/And letters come/She waits at the window/And I listen at the door."

At its best, such words are incisive, worthy of a poem, but their plainspoken quality threatens to become leaden, as if Malloy felt the need to spell out every detail for us. I suspect the author/composer is too much of an unsentimentalist; he wants us to contemplate the characters without becoming too emotionally engaged with them. Then again, this may be the most faithfully Tolstoyan aspect of Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812.

In any case, Chavkin's production is a fine chance to get acquainted with some very talented young people. As Natasha, Phillipa Soo, a recent Juilliard graduate, has a strong presence and sings with authority while conveying the confused emotions of a sheltered young lady. Lucas Steele is in excellent voice as Anatole, conveying every bit of his heedless, dangerous charm. Amelia Workman is solid in both the acting and vocal departments as Marya D, Natasha's sharp-eyed guardian, and Brittain Ashford has the closest thing to a showstopper in the ballad "Sonia Alone." Blake DeLong makes a brief, if effective, appearance as the disenchanted Andrei. Malloy has cast himself as Pierre, the portly, reclusive loner who watches over the action with a kind of philosophical resignation. The part feels underwritten until the middle of second act when he begins to dominate the action; his furious encounter with Anatole provides the evening's most gripping moments.

Mimi Lien's setting is certainly atmospheric, although the combination of red drapes and vintage paintings did remind me somewhat of Donyale Werle's design for Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. Bradley King's lighting design, with real theatrical fixtures hidden behind eccentric, almost Populuxe-style chandeliers, is remarkably precise, chopping up this tiny narrow space into a variety of playing areas, and shifting focus with ease. Paloma Young's costumes are quite detailed given what cannot have been a large budget. Matt Hubbs, the sound designer, has been given an almost undoable job -- what with actors and musicians spread all over the room - and if his reinforcement is not very natural sounding, it is nevertheless crystal clear.

The most truthful thing I can say about Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 is that it is very hard to describe. It's like mercury, shifting its shape when you touch it. In any case, it introduces us to a writer/composer with a highly distinctive voice. Whether it can be put to the task of creating compelling musical theatre is a question that remains at least partly unanswered.--David Barbour


(17 October 2012)

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