Monday, November 25, 2013

It's A Complicated Russian Novel, Given a Top-Notch Adaptation

Review:  Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812

Phillipa Soo makes a stunning Off-Broadway debut as the title character in Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812.  Please let this be the start of many more star turns to come.

Every so often a show comes along that is so thrillingly original that it’s difficult to describe in words.  Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812 is just such a show, an incredible work of art so unlike what has come before that it must be experienced firsthand to be truly comprehended.  A seamless fusion of disparate and unexpected elements like Russian folk music, electronica, and 19th century literature that draws equally from the worlds of musical theatre and traditional opera, Natasha is a rollicking good time in the theatre and easily the best new musical of the year. 

The story is adapted from a portion of Leo Tolstoy’s famous Russian epic War and Peace, but don’t for a second let that fact fool you into thinking Natasha is some stuffy, overly romantic period musical.  This self-described “electro-pop opera” makes the source material feel fresh, vibrant, and immediately accessible, distilling the passions and politics of the Russian aristocracy into something relatable to modern audiences without losing an ounce of the setting’s otherworldly appeal.  The plot follows the young and beautiful Natasha, who is madly in love with her fiancé Prince Andrey and goes to live with her godmother in Moscow while anxiously awaiting his return from fighting in the Napoleonic Wars.  During Andrey’s absence she meets and is eventually seduced by the indescribably handsome but morally questionable Anatole, whose brother-in-law Pierre serves as the evening’s narrator.

Through-composed with music and lyrics by Dave Malloy (who also provided the libretto), Natasha features an incredibly complex score that strikes the perfect balance between being immediately tuneful and offering nuanced layers that require repeated listening to fully appreciate.  Staying away from the more traditionally structured songs typically associated with musicals, Natasha’s score is heavily influenced by the operatic model of melodically inventive recitative interspersed with more rigidly formatted arias.  Malloy creates sonically distinct and vibrant worlds for each of the show’s varied settings, from the rapturously beautiful cacophony of the opera to the thumping bass of Moscow’s clubs.  The blending of such anachronistic and diametrically opposed genres only adds to the show’s unique identity, and never once does a musical choice feel inappropriate or ill advised.  Melodic motifs are subtly reused and reconfigured throughout, making the show sound familiar and yet fresh for the entirety of its runtime.

Malloy has written some truly stunning solos, like Natasha’s soaring “No One Else” or her cousin Sonya’s plaintive “Sonya Alone.”  Yet his true genius reveals itself in the more complex duets and ensemble numbers, which are filled to the bursting point with tight harmonies and elaborate choral writing.  The multi-talented Malloy has also orchestrated his own work to perfection, adding another dimension to the music as the instruments and vocals intertwine in deliciously unexpected ways.  But as beautiful and accomplished as Malloy’s score is, it is always in service of the characters and the story, and it keeps the show moving at a near-breathless pace.

Once the show starts, it doesn’t stop, and even the more introspective moments carry with them a thrilling forward momentum.  Malloy’s score lays the basis for this, but it is amplified and enhanced by Rachel Chavkin’s stunning direction.  Chavkin has gifted the show with an immersive staging that truly makes the audience feel like they are a part of the action, which occurs all around them in a specially designed venue called Kazino created explicitly to house the show.  The actors enter and exit from all sides, often speaking directly to the audience and occasionally roping a spectator or two into the action.  Chavkin’s artful deployment of her actors utilizes the space to its fullest while at the same time maintaining a laser-like focus; you always know exactly where you should look, but there is plenty to hold your attention should you choose to glance elsewhere.

Further enhancing the show’s crystal clear storytelling is the unbelievable lighting design by Bradley King.  King achieves a dizzying number of looks and washes over the course of the evening, highlighting and enhancing the action at every turn.  With just a couple of lights and some colored gels King transports us to a snow-covered Moscow street at night or an elaborate costumed ball in a palatial manor.  King’s work is essential in creating some of the evening’s most striking images, including a final tableau that beautifully abstracts the titular Comet of 1812.  It is a virtuosic piece of design work that stands among the very best lighting designs I’ve ever encountered.

And after all of this praise, I haven’t even touched upon the extraordinarily gifted cast who brings this tale to life.  The story is anchored, from beginning to end, by Julliard graduate Phillipa Soo’s stunning portrayal of Natasha.  Soo embodies Natasha’s youth and charisma while utilizing a staggering emotional honesty and accessibility that makes you feel every step of her journey from childhood innocence into full-grown womanhood.  Soo sings likes a dream and has a remarkable amount of control over her voice, but it is her acting that truly captures the audience and makes Natasha’s story involving, relatable, and ultimately heartbreaking.  Soo is a star in the making, and one can only hope that Natasha is the beginning of a long and illustrious career for the young beauty.

David Abeles is by necessity more restrained as Pierre, a cuckolded husband and academic who spends a majority of the first act on the story’s periphery.  He possesses an everyman quality that makes him feel approachable, and his expressive face and voice allows him to communicate the multitude of emotions roiling beneath Pierre’s stoic surface.  As his adulterous wife Helene, Amber Gray is an unbridled firebrand whose killer, blues-influenced voice is put to particularly good use during the song “Charming.”  And Grace McLean is outstanding as Marya D, Natasha godmother and the grande dame of the Moscow aristocracy.  A welcome bit of comic relief for most of the show, McLean comes into her own during the impassioned one-two punch of “In My House” and “A Call to Pierre” late in the second act.

The only cast member who isn’t quite all you’d hope is Lucas Steele as Anatole.  Undeniably handsome and possessing an impressive tenor, Steele can be hard to understand when singing in his middle register and lacks the emotional believability of his costars.  He has the character’s preening physicality down pat, but doesn’t quite have the chemistry to truly sell Anatole’s wholesale seduction of the innocent Natasha.

That is literally the only negative thing I have to say about the production (and Steele is by no means awful); everything else is top notch.  Dave Malloy has written a truly revolutionary score that deserves to be heard often and repeatedly, and may well prove to be an inspiration to an entire generation of future musical theatre composers.  Rachel Chavkin has directed the piece with precision and sensitivity, in an immersive environmental staging that is a shining example of how such productions should be done.  The refreshingly multi-ethnic cast is a top-notch group of singing actors, and Phillipa Soo in particular establishes herself as an actress to watch.  Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812 is playing a limited engagement through January 5th, so get your tickets now or miss out on the most exciting new musical of the year.

UPDATE:  The show has recently been extended to February 2nd, so you still have time to catch this gem!  I'm already planning my (3rd) trip to this astonishing production.

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