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A CurtainUp Review
Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812
By Elyse Sommer
What you'll experience at Kizano is as different from traditional dinner theater as Dave Malloy's cheeky and tuneful take on War and Peace without the war but plenty of romantic fireworks on the home front is from traditional musical theater. As a rule dinner theater patrons expect their meal to come with a revival of a popular musical with plenty of hummable tunes. But while this sung-through musical extragavanza has an enjoyably melodic score without the dissonance of some of our newer musicals, neither is it a hummable hit factory.
In a word, this is a completely original piece. It has elements of Rent, the immersive appeal of the Public Theater musical Here Lies Love and the long running non-musical Sleep No More. Above all, it's entertaining and occasionally thrilling. Being adapted from a classic novel (at least a chunk of it) gives it just enough class to add a certain intellectual cachet.
Anyone who's been there, knows Ars Nova as an incubator for fresh theatrical work, but also knows that the physical constraints of the company's home made Natasha, Pierre. . . a challenge to mount. Fortunately, the talent and energy invested in last year's premiere won the day. Reviews and word of mouth seeded enough interest and money to allow the show to spread its wings in a unique new setting: a specially constructed 6000 foot tent with red curtained walls on a rented lot and named, in keeping with its purpose, Kozina which is transliterated from the Russian for nightclub. (Interestingly, the nightclub was conceiveddd by Simon Hammerstein, whose taken his family's show business legacy in a whole new direction).
Obviously the little engine has now proved that it could metamorphose into a much bigger affair— a bit too big and splashy perhaps with its chandeliers, snowflakes, strobe lights and actors and musicians dashing about between tables and to different performance platforms. Fortunately, with the creative team and all but a couple of performers and musicians still on board, the impeccable quality that permeated even the more modestly scaled production has not gone missing in the move to the ever more trendy meat packing district at the foot of Chelsea Piers.
Phillipa Soo as Natasha and Lucas Steele as Anatole are gorgeous to look at with emotionally rich voices. As if his gets to sing some of his very fine lyrics Singing isn't the versatile Malloy's strong suite, but as Pierre he's a powerful presence, especially during the climax when the vision of the comet streaking through the sky brings him the joy of compassion and true love. The rest of the ensemble are fully into their exhausting, all-over-the place roles and each gets at least one solo turn in which to shine. Costume designer Paloma Young has made the most of having had more leeway to dress everyone in an eye popping mix of period and punk costumes.
The money spent on letting the show expand is mostly a good thing. Still, performing in a space three times the size of Ars Nova has its downside. Lighting designer Bradley King has gone overboard on the frequent bursts of blinding strobe lights that outdo Richard Foreman's tendency to put sensitive eyes at risk. The need for face mics also entails an attendant loss of intimacy. Yet the hyped up visuals and vocals and the 3-figure ticket price, also give some credence to rumors about this being test run for moving the show — dinner theater setting included — into a Broadway theater.
Food service begins an hour before the show begins so it's best to get there at least a half hour before show time. However, I'd suggest you give yourself a full hour for a more leisurely dinner and have a close look at the period paintings that line the curtained wall. A timely arrival will also enable you to enjoy the music and dancing by a group of gorgeous and amazingly graceful and agile servers who are sort of an opening act for what's to come.
Since what follows dinner is essentially a reprise of the show, only on a flasier and more lavish scale, Bill Coyle's original review still best explains what made it so much fun and gave it the legs for this expensive move. I'm therefore reposting it after the current production notes. (Here's a quick jump link to the original review )
William Coyle's original review at Ars Nova
Although you can grab a little food and drink at Ars Nova’s latest production, the often tongue-in-cheek Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 is a far cry from dinner theater. Scenic designer Mimi Lien has done a fantastic job turning the theater’s long but relatively narrow space into an early 19th century Moscow nightclub, replete with intimate table lamps and rounded booths. Get settled early. Your table will sport a bottle of vodka (ours happened to be Tito’s handmade vodka from Austin, Texas, rather than from Russia, but it’s all good) and will be visited, as the show begins, by jovial servers bearing fresh bread and just boiled dumplings.
Over the course of two and one-half hours and, depending upon how much vodka you consume, you’ll likely lose track of the plot. Don’t obsess over it. Old, wealthy, drunk Pierre (played by creator Dave Malloy, who has adopted a section of Tolstoy’s War and Peace into this “electro-pop” opera), is the master of ceremonies and the character around whom much of the action pivots. He and the Ensemble will fill you in on most of the crucial details.
For those who haven't read War and Peace in eons or, let's face it— ever— the program also contains a handy synopsis of the opera's plot. It's a classic love story that takes place just before Napoleon's 1812 invasion of Russia. I won't summarize it all here, but with rivalrous love, heaps of rejection, a duel, an elopement, and an attempted suicide, it all certainly makes for fascinating opera.
And you will be, literally, right in the middle of it. The musicians are strategically placed around the venue—through a combination of necessity and design. Jaunty and exhilarating, the band complements, rather than overpowers, the actors, bringing a contemporary swagger and attitude to the production. On the night I attended, cellist Raymond Sicam III sported a black cut off shirt emblazoned with the words “Sick of It All,” after the hardcore punk group. And cellist Brent Arnold composes music for Louis CK’s comedy show, Louie. The overachieving stew formed by the combination of creators makes the exactly two-hundred year old fictional events come to life with a hip modern flair that nonetheless remains true to Tolstoy.
The production has been two years in the making and it shows. Every inch of available space is exploited to full effect. You may be sipping vodka while the young, lovelorn Natasha sashays by, singing above your head. Or, the clarinetist may kindly ask you to move your coat. A demented prince may try to steal your bread.
Even if you aren't an opera fan, you will become enamored with the spectacle. Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 is a full-scale production of painstakingly high quality. That will be appreciated by all who attend.
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