By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
Some smart person once said, "If Life could write, it would write like Tolstoy." Anybody who has fallen in love with Tolstoy's novel, War and Peace, knows how true this is, making it unlikely that an adaptation of the enormous novel for the stage—a musical adaptation at that—would measure up. And yet, somehow, this does. David Malloy's show, Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 is gorgeous, preserving Tolstoy's magnificent prose in a sung-though musical opera. You don't have to know the novel to enjoy the show, but knowing it makes it all the better.
Leaving "War" out, Malloy chose the central love story: young Natasha (Phillipa Soo) is engaged to Andrey (Blake DeLong); he exits through clanging metal doors in a puff of smoke—the same doors and same smoke that will present Anatole (the spectacular Lucas Steele). The first song, "There's a war going on out there somewhere and Andrey isn't here" introduces all characters, with each verse ending with the crucial fact, "And Andrey isn't here." In his absence, amoral Anatole with his immoral sister Helene (Amber Gray) and dashing military pal Dolokhov (Ian Lassiter) will seduce the naïve and easily dazzled Natasha. Her friend Sonya (Brittain Ashford) is the perfect contralto foil. Pierre (Dave Malloy—so tender, so hangdog, so good) wastes his life; "our merry, feasting friend" drinks too much, reads too long, and becomes the moral pivot of the plot. His final song, when he sees the comet of 1812 in the "firmament," is quietly glorious.
Rachel Chavkin's direction is very clever, moving our attention from one spot in the room too another, alternating scenes as wisely as Tolstoy did: first quiet, then noisy, then sweet, then brash. The song where Mary (Gelsey Bell) and Natasha meet and take an instant dislike to each other ("irksome, irksome") shifts to Natasha dancing alone "in the snowy moonlight" (the lighting designed by Bradley King is ravishing). Then off to the grand opera, then a wild scene at the club, all strobe lights and strippers, and so on. Malloy's wonderful, haunting songs use music not only to accompany the voices but to comment, sometimes sardonically, on the events. The singers are all superb actors, conveying character with mannerisms and expressions that instantly sketch a personality. The costumes, designed by Paloma Young, are both sumptuous and apt. My only disappointment was that the show ended.
Billed as an "electro-pop opera," I mistakenly expected it to be one of those tragically trendy High Concept pieces. This was especially true since the venue, Kazino (written in Russian on its outside walls), is a makeshift corner site in the middle of the meatpacking district, now filled with designer showrooms where absurdly high heels and high prices have replaced meat. The entrance is under the High Line—more supercoolness--and stepping inside you find corrugated metal walls, men in suits with clipboards looking like Russian gangsters. Step through the door into the theatre, however, and you're suddenly in a 19th century Russian supperclub: tiers of little tables and padded banquettes, walls covered with dark red cloth and hung with paintings. The actors perform—with astonishing surefootedness—throughout the audience; musicians are stationed discreetly at various stations, sometimes reading their music from a framed score which looks like a picture. The food service, by stunning young Eastern European women with appropriate accents, is unobtrusive, and the borscht is delish.