The walls of the theater have been draped in red velvet from which are hung early 19th century Napoleonic and Russian paintings. The stage has been turned into several tiers with levels separated by brass railings leading up to a magnificent two-story entrance way. Part of the audience sits on either side of the central playing area, while some sit ring side at café tables. The original orchestra section now has a runway through it on which performers appear or mingle with the audience. Scattered throughout this section are tables meant for drinks and other refreshments. On either side of the original proscenium that look like part of the set but are bars that actually serve drinks such as vodka concoctions. Overhead are many starburst chandeliers which are periodically used in telling the story in Bradley King’s lighting design. On either side of the stage are stairways to the balcony that are used by the actors.
Ingenious and inventive director Chavkin, a longtime collaborator of composer-writer Malloy collaborator, has brilliantly recreated her staging so that the performance takes place in many parts of the new set. Once again many of the actors and ensemble members play instruments in various scenes becoming an integral part of the music as well as the story line. The total effect is both dazzling and total theater, a term not often easily applied to a Broadway musical. The new performers fill in well with the all-over concept and storyline, whether familiar or new, is easy to follow.
Besides sitting surrounding the performance space in a sort of theater in the round, the audience is once again drawn into the action: a tea party for Natasha given by her fiancé’s sister Princess Mary still takes place at one of the audience tables, and during the Letter sequence (which cleverly opens the second half of the evening and establishes how life was different before email and tweeting), audience members are again asked to pass the missives sent to various characters spread across the set.
We knew it was a great novel, but who knew Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Part I, would make such an exciting and innovative electro pop-rock opera? Not that the epic novel isn’t a fantastic read, but how to successfully put this 1,200 page novel on the stage? (Prokofiev’s opera needed 70 characters and 13 sequences.) First seen in 2012 for a sold-out 39 performance run at Ars Nova, this sung-through electro pop-rock opera, was then presented in 2013 at a supper club called Kazino (Russian for “Casino”) in the Meatpacking District, twice the size of the Ars Nova space, built specifically to house the show, and later it was moved uptown to a Kazino put up on 45th Street.
Lest you are afraid of Tolstoy’s huge novel, Malloy (who has written both words and music) has chosen the high society section of the “Peace” half of the novel, a 70-page chunk which is complete in itself. He has also reduced the cast of characters to 11 people, with one actor (Nicholas Belton) playing both the doddering Prince Bolkonsky and his soldier son Prince Andrey who is mainly off at the Napoleonic war during the time of the story. The show begins with a very clever “Prologue” in which all of the characters introduce themselves in the third person. As each one is introduced, the chorus refrains the earlier verses so that by the end of the opening section we are fully grounded in the people of the story. The words are witty (with a contemporary slant) but with asides concerning the mores and life style of 19th century Tsarist Russia for those not familiar with them. This section concludes with a summary stanza that tells you all you need to know in order to follow the story:
“Balaga is fun
Bolkonsky is crazy
Mary is plain
Dolokhov is fierce
Hélène is a slut
Anatole is hot
Marya is old-school
Sonya is good
Natasha is young
And Andrey isn’t here
And what about Pierre?”
The musical follows the journey of Countess Natasha Rostova and her cousin Sonya who arrive in Moscow during the winter of 1812 to visit Natasha’s godmother, Princess Marya D, while Natasha awaits her fiancé, Prince Andrey to return home from the war. At loose ends, Natasha attends the opera where she is seen by the handsome Anatole, a notorious rogue and womanizer, who is immediately smitten by the beautiful, naive and vulnerable young woman. His dissolute and depraved half-sister, the beautiful Hélène, the estranged wife of Count Pierre (the intellectual but socially inept moral center of the novel) arranges a ball in order to give Anatole a chance alone with Natasha. Along with his debauched friend Dolokhov, Anatole organizes an elopement, never telling Natasha that he is already married, among the many shortcomings in his checkered past. The second half of the evening dramatizes the consequences of this plot and the maturing of Natasha. Because of his wife’s involvement, Pierre is brought out of his lethargy and forced to take action. The evening ends with the appearance of the Comet of 1812 and Pierre’s new sense of hope.
The score (to orchestrations by the composer) which makes use of everything from folk music to electro pop has a unique instrumentation for a Broadway musical: cello, drums, clarinet, piano, bass, oboe, viola, accordion and guitar, and has a decidedly 19th century sound despite the contemporary lyrics. Aside from the orchestra seated on a dais center stage, several musicians are scattered around the space in various corners on tiers.
Played by Groban (replacing the composer who appeared in the first two New York productions), Pierre, whom we are told is a recluse buried in his study for most of the story, sits among the orchestra members in the center and plays various instruments including the accordion when not immersed in his reading, while other characters often pick up a guitar, an accordion or a violin to accompany themselves. The company even finds room for choreographer Sam Pinkleton’s dances between the aisles for the formal ball and gypsy cabaret scenes. It makes you want to join in, but alas, there wouldn’t be enough room for both the actors and the audience.
The acting remains superb, allowing the cast to travel through a gamut of emotions, and dressed in Paloma Young’s lavish costumes, it is immediately obvious who the characters must be: Benton’s lovely and vulnerable Natasha, Lucas Steele’s arrogant and vain Anatole, Brittain Ashford’s devoted and caring Sonya, Amber Gray’s corrupt and beauteous Hélène, Grace McLean’s imperious and compassionate Princess Marya D, Gelsey Bell’s pallid and humble Princess Mary, Nicholas Belton’s eccentric and rickety Prince Bolkonsky, Nick Choksi’s hedonistic and dissipated Dolokhov, Paul Pinto’s carefree and high-spirited Balaga, and Groban’s shaggy, pudgy and introspective Pierre. All of the leads have solos which receive an ovation. Benton’s lovely soprano wraps itself around her aria, “No One Else,” while Groban’s rich baritone makes the finale into a thrilling event. However, equally memorable are Gray’s seductive “Charming,” McLean’s furious “In My House,” and Ashford’s “Sonya Alone” and “Natasha Very Ill.”
All of the performances seem to have deepened into three-dimensional characters. It may help that it is no longer necessary to swivel one’s head around to see the show as one did in the restaurant settings. The seven leads (mainly from the earlier Ars Nova production) are joined by an ensemble of 22 – six from previous New York productions – who play all of the other needed roles as characters and narrators. The cunning lighting by King always directs attention to the scene of the action and he is also responsible for the appearance of the Great Comet of 1812 for the finale which is not quite as magical as in the Kazino production.
The running time is listed as two hours and 40 minutes, but the time passes in a flash. Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 is not to be missed, and with the arrival of other sung-through shows such as Murder Ballad and Here Lies Love which also take place in environments built specifically for their material, we may be at the dawning of a new kind of musical theater. Remember the names of composer-librettist David Malloy and director Rachel Chavkin who are already working at the top of their game. It is devoutly to be wished that Malloy and Chavkin will be convinced to create a sequel dealing with the war section of Tolstoy’s novel and continuing the story, even if as Malloy has said it would have to be fought on Governors Island.
Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 (through September 3, 2017)
The American Repertory Theater presents the Ars Nova Production
Imperial Theatre, 249 W. 45th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 800-432-7780 or visit http://www.telecharge.com
Running time: two hours and 40 minutes with one intermission