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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.”

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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.

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.

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