Legit Review: ‘Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812’

Commercial transfer smartly brings back a seductive, unpredictable, immersive musical

Brittain Ashford, Blake Delong, Amber Gray, Dave Malloy, Grace McLean, Phillipa Soo, Lucas Steele, Gelsey Bell, Ian Lassiter, Paul Pinto, Nicholas Belton, Catherine Brookman, Luke Holloway, Azudi Onyejekwe, Mariand Torres, Lauren Zakrin.

As Russian supper club entertainment goes, “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” could put belly dancers out of business. In this smartly engineered transfer, Dave Malloy’s innovative musical treatment of (a very thin slice of) “War and Peace” has been installed in Kazino, an ersatz Russian nightclub housed in an elaborate tent set up in the trendy Meatpacking District. The environmental staging (brilliant work by helmer Rachel Chavkin) places the performers on raised platforms and at strategic floor locations among the audience, who sit at tables dining on Russian fare and tossing down vodka shots. “Za Vas!”

The narrative thread that survives from Tolstoy’s monumental work is the one that romantic readers take away from the novel. It’s “War and Peace” without the war and pretty much boiled down to the tragic story of Natasha (Phillipa Soo, the vocal essence of innocence), who loses her true love, Andrey (a brief but touching perf from Blake Delong), when she falls for that dashing rogue Anatole (the dashing tenor, Lucas Steele).

For anyone who’s really desperate to keep track of who’s who, the players introduce themselves in a saucy Prologue, while reminding the aud that “this is all in your program.”

So it is, but who can tear their eyes from the seductive environment? In Mimi Lien’s comprehensive design, the set has the gaudy look of a Russian nightclub, with blood-red walls hung with gilded mirrors and reproductions of 19th century paintings in ornate frames.  The dominant color accent is the burnished gold of an old coin and the eye-catching chandeliers look like miniature Sputniks.  Bradley King’s tricky lighting design manages to light the actors, who are scattered throughout the room, while casting a flattering glow on the faces of patrons sitting at the tables.

Like the performers, individual band members pop up in the most unlikely places, which seems unorthodox but generates a surround-sound that adds to the impression that the entire room is one big stage.

Malloy’s eclectic score is likewise all over the place.

A pseudo-operatic style serves for the delicious number (“The Opera”) in which the innocent Natasha is introduced to tout le monde in decadent Moscow society. “Balaga” is a lusty piece of Russian folk music that finds Anatole carousing at a gypsy orgy. “Sonya Alone,” full of feeling and beautifully sung by Brittain Ashford, is close to a traditional aria.

Other songs sound exactly like the personalities of the characters who sing them. In Amber Gray’s fiery performance, “Charming” conveys the spiteful fury that the Countess Helene feels for Natasha. “In My House” is all muscle, reflecting Grace McLean’s strength of will as Natasha’s protective godmother, Marya D.

And on occasion Malloy (who plays Pierre, the sad-sack philosopher of the title) will come out with something like “Letters,” a quick-witted, intellectually bracing song that feels more French than Russian.

The calculated lack of musical consistency is enough to drive a purist crazy. The lyrics also march defiantly to their own drumbeat, observing no rhyme scheme, ignoring historical authenticity, and overstepping their musical limits, if they feel like it. There’s an air of danger to that kind of unpredictability — and how sexy is that.

Popular on Variety

Legit Review: 'Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812'

Kazino; 199 seats; $125 top. Opened May 16, 2013. Reviewed May 15. Running time: TWO HOURS, 35 MIN.

Production: A  Howard and Janet Kagan, Paula Marie Black, John Logan, Lisa Matlin, Daveed Frazier, Tom Smedes, Vertical Ent. / Roman Gambourg / Lev Gelfer, presentation of a production commissioned and developed by Ars Nova of a musical in two acts by Dave Malloy, adapted from "War and Peace" by Leo Tolstoy. 

Creative: Direction and musical staging by Rachel Chavkin.  Choreographed by Sam Pinkleton. Setting, Mimi Lien; costumes, Paloma Young; lighting, Bradley King; sound, Matt Hubbs; music director, Or Matias; music supervisor, Sonny Paladino; orchestrations, Dave Malloy; production stage manager, Karyn Meek. 

Cast: Brittain Ashford, Blake Delong, Amber Gray, Dave Malloy, Grace McLean, Phillipa Soo, Lucas Steele, Gelsey Bell, Ian Lassiter, Paul Pinto, Nicholas Belton, Catherine Brookman, Luke Holloway, Azudi Onyejekwe, Mariand Torres, Lauren Zakrin.

More Legit

  • Secret Derren Brown review

    Review: 'Derren Brown: Secret'

    Audiences love to be fooled, whether it’s with clever plotting with a twist, the arrival of an unexpected character or even a charming flimflam man with a British accent. The latter is Derren Brown, and he’s entertaining audiences for a limited run at the Cort Theatre, where he is playing head-scratching mind games and other [...]

  • Matthew Broderick, Sarah Jessica ParkerNew York

    Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker to Reunite on Broadway for 'Plaza Suite'

    Real-life couple Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker are hitting the Broadway stage again for a reboot of the late Neil Simon’s 1968 play “Plaza Suite.” The staging will mark the Broadway directorial debut of Tony award-winner John Benjamin Hickey. Set in New York City’s Plaza Hotel in Suite 719, “Plaza Suite” is comprised of [...]

  • Derren Brown

    Listen: Derren Brown Spills His Broadway 'Secret'

    Derren Brown has spent a lot of his career performing magic shows on theater stages — but he’ll be the first to tell you that magic usually doesn’t make for great theater. Listen to this week’s podcast below: “If you’re a magician of any sort, you can make stuff happen with a click of your [...]

  • A Very Expensive Poison review

    London Theater Review: 'A Very Expensive Poison'

    Vladimir Putin owes his power to the stage. The president’s closest advisor trained as a theatre director before applying his art to politics, and ran Russia like a staged reality, spinning so many fictions that truth itself began to blur. By scrambling the story and sowing confusion, Putin could exert absolute control. The long-awaited latest [...]

  • Betrayal review Tom Hiddleston

    Broadway Review: 'Betrayal' With Tom Hiddleston

    and Zawe Ashton as a long-married couple and Charlie Cox as the secret lover. Director Jamie Lloyd’s impeccable direction — now on Broadway, after a hot-ticket London run — strips Pinter’s 1978 play to its bare bones: the excruciating examination of the slow death of a marriage.  It’s a daring approach, leaving the characters nowhere [...]

  • Jayne Houdyshell arrives at the 71st

    'The Music Man' Revival Adds Four Tony Winners to Broadway Cast

    Tony Award-winners Jayne Houdyshell, Jefferson Mays, Marie Mullen and Shuler Hensley will join stars Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster in the upcoming Broadway revival of “The Music Man.” In “The Music Man,” Jackman will play con-man Harold Hill, who arrives in a small, fictional Iowa town called River City and urges the townsfolk to start [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content