Immersive theater is clearly the flavor of the month, both on and off Broadway. I'm not automatically for or against it, as long as I don't have to climb up and down six flights of stairs for 2 hours (cough, cough...Sleep No More...cough, cough). For me, it always comes down to the quality of the piece itself. A weak show is going to be weak whether I'm dancing along with the throng or seated in a box above the fray (cough, cough...Here Lies Love...cough, cough).
Fortunately, Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 is a genuinely strong show, even without the Russian "banquet" (actually, more of a light brunch when I saw the show on a Sunday afternoon) and atmospheric staging (the cast parades around on a serpentine catwalk that surrounds the audience members, who are seated mostly at cafe tables). And yet these elements add immeasurably to the pan-sensory nature of the show, and help make Natasha, Pierre more than just a solidly crafted musical. It's also an experience.
As you may have heard, Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, after playing an acclaimed run last year at Ars Nova, has now transferred downtown to a temporary structure located under the High Line in the super chichi Meatpacking District. The show is rather steeply priced for an Off-Broadway show: $125, but remember that comes with the aforementioned "feast." Discounted tickets are available as of this writing through BroadwayBox.
Again, it's the piece itself that makes Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 such a delight. The music and libretto are by Dave Malloy, who also plays Pierre. Malloy has taken his narrative from no less a source than War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. Yikes. Thankfully, Malloy only tries to musicalize one particular narrative thread from that formidable tome.
The program for Natasha, Pierre features both a plot synopsis and a family tree showing the relationships among all of the characters. Normally, both of these elements would be a bad sign. I mean, a show needs to work on its own, right? (Cough,cough...Les Miserables...cough, cough.) But thankfully Natasha, Pierre isn't all that difficult to follow. But that doesn't stop Malloy from having a little fun at the expense of Russian literature. He even includes in his opening number a sly nod to the the fact that War and Peace itself, and indeed many Russian novels, are notoriously overpopulated. His lyric glibly observes that everyone in Russian literature seems to have nine different names.
If you've never read War and Peace, never fear. The show makes perfect sense even if you can't tell your Tolstoy from your Dostoevsky from your Pushkin. Essentially, Natasha is betrothed to Andrey, who goes off to fight in the titular war. But while Andrey is gone, Natasha becomes entranced with the dissolute but charming Anatole. Meanwhile, the well-to-do Pierre is trapped in a loveless marriage, but provides Anatole with the money he needs to debauch, carouse, and otherwise dissipate. Through most of the show, it's not entirely clear how Natasha and Pierre will intersect, nor what the eponymous comet has to do with anything. But it all comes together, and quite well, in fact. The final scene in the show represents a moment of ravishing beauty, of quiet transcendence that was stunning in its emotional honesty.
Malloy's lyrics tend to be rather narrative, but the songs feature a nice mix of character interaction as well. I mean, this is War and Peace, right? There's a lot of exposition to get through, but it never feels labored or unnecessary. The one major misstep in the show occurs in the second act when we suddenly encounter a song for and about Balaga, the bumptious troika driver, a character we haven't seen before and won't be seeing again. But the number does have a raucous, knockabout feel to it, which is just what the show needs at that point.
Director Rachel Chavkin, in addition to creating the aforementioned atmospheric staging, uses the space to its full effect, including having the performers filter through and mingle among the audience members. She also crafts some indelible moments involving Natasha and the inexorable pull she feels toward Anatole. It seemed, though, that allowing for applause breaks and utilizing blackouts to cover change scenes are mistakes on Chavkin's part, as they interrupt the otherwise ineluctable momentum of the narrative.
The show also boasts a remarkably strong, and ethnically diverse, cast, including Phillipa Soo, who brings a wonderful innocence and palpable sense of heartbreak to the role of Natasha. As the reprobate Anatole, we have the striking and cocksure Lucas Steele, who looks night-and-day different from his appearance as Christopher Sieber's boyfriend in the sorely underrated The Kid. (Lucas, keep your hair short, dude.) One minor glitch in the cast was Brittain Ashford as Natasha's cousin Sonya. Ashford seems to be consciously affecting that sort of under-supported, raspy, Sarah McLachlan/Lisa Loeb type of sound. I guess that would be fine if it sounded authentic, but instead it felt forced. Plus, she was the only cast member singing in that style, so it really stuck out.
Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 plays through September 1st at Kazino. If you're like me and never go anywhere unless theater brings you there, it's a great chance to check out the High Line and see why people are paying waaaaaaaaaaay too much money to live between 16th and Gansevoort Street.
(Oh, and a quick note about the much-publicized cell-phone-throwing incident. Yeah, people made a hero out of this guy, but I have two words for Mr. Williamson: anger management. I hate when people text during shows as much as the next guy, but, dude, the chairs are all movable. Why didn't you just relocate rather than venting your rage at someone who clearly wasn't going to benefit from your unsolicited schooling?)