DRINKS WITH A RAKE
Find the nearest bottle of vodka and drink up. Ars Nova’s world premiere of Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 – an electro-pop musicalization of a self-contained section of Tolstoy’s War and Peace – offers up a tantalizing environmental experience. Dramaturgically, however, this new musical wouldn’t hold up in any other theatrical space.
The star of this new musical is arguably the set, a lush Russian bar designed by Mimi Lien. Ars Nova has been transformed into a 19th century supper club where you can drink and carouse with your theatergoing companions. The walls are draped in rich red curtains topped with naturalist portraits and landscapes. Take your seat at a bar stool or café table and pour a shot as the cast, decked out in impeccable period attire designed by Paloma Young, streams into the room with plates of hot Russian dumplings and a loaf of bread to share.
Rachel Chavkin’s direction is immersive; cast members flirt with audience members, dance on the bar tops, and gallivant through the tight space to create a bustling, warm and welcoming atmosphere from the get-go. The band plays from every corner of the theater, syncing up cleanly under Dave Malloy’s sharp musical direction.
Alas, Malloy takes on at least one too many roles as the writer, composer, music director, and lead actor of this experimental opera. The show kicks off to a catchy, playful start with a cumulative song (a la “The Twelve Days of Christmas”) that introduces all the characters in the Russian drama. The program even provides you with a handy family tree and a synopsis to follow along. But in truth, the narrative isn’t all that complex: it’s a familiar, ill-fated romance.
The young and innocent Natasha (crystalline-voiced Phillipa Soo) gets entangled with a notorious rake named Anatole (the charismatic Lucas Steele) while awaiting her fiancé Andrey’s return from war. Meanwhile, Pierre (Dave Malloy, whose raspy Adam Pascal-like voice often mentally transported me to Rent) loses himself in drink and philosophy to escape his wife Helene’s (the fierce Amber Gray’s) infidelity.
The concept for the show – a time collapse of contemporary music and mannerisms with Tolstoy’s novel – is strongest when indulging in excesses, such as transforming the space into a club complete with strobe lights and a DJ pumping beats from his Macbook. Even the most marginal characters like Balaga the troika driver (Paul Pinto) are accorded moments in the spotlight with fun, raucous musical numbers.
Not unlike Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson or Spring Awakening, however, the youthful energy and the hip concept of the show often outpace the narrative content. When it comes to Natasha and Pierre’s love lives – the heart of the show – the sung-through opera falters, with sloppy conversational lyrics conveying bombastic emotions that are often impossible to take seriously. While the musical shows undeniable promise, Malloy could benefit from collaboration with a bookwriter.
In the end, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 is not much unlike that rake Anatole. It charms the hell out of its audience before leaving it high and dry. And yet this new musical is an affair to remember: an experimental experience that still needs development, but will undeniably have its audience talking for weeks.
photos by Ben Arons
Natasha, Pierre, & The Great Comet of 1812
Ars Nova in New York City
scheduled to end on November 10, 2012 EXTENDED to November 17, 2012
for tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit Ovation Tix