The gimmick at Kazino, the newly constructed Meatpacking District performance space at which the show is playing, is that entering the building is akin to entering an 18th-century Russian restaurant. Tables line the floor, portraits line the wall (a particularly imposing one of Napoleon hangs over the bar), and a battalion of comely waitresses ensures that mere moments after you sit down, tantalizing dishes ranging from borscht and shrimp to chicken and pierogies (and shot glasses of vodka, should you so choose) will be gracing your table.
It doesn't take you long, however, to discover that a gimmick is really all this is. For Malloy has taken surprisingly seriously his charge to boil down a few key sections of Leo Tolstoy's epic 1869 novel War and Peace to manageable musical size, while retaining the electricity and character that still brand the book as a major work of literature. And even when the coterie of main characters — there are 11, not including a few extra for the chorus — begin belting out their exposition, emotions, and innermost thoughts in serious-minded present-day pop, you're never yanked out of either the atmosphere or the angst in which it's steeped.
This is because Malloy, unlike so many writers who work, and have even found some success, in this genre, has intimately tied the style and the songs to the sweep of the era that produced them. It seems right that the innocent Natasha (Phillipa Soo) should swoon in quasi-electric torch after her betrothed, Andrey, departs for war. Or that the handsome Anatole (Lucas Steele), with whom Natasha flings in Andrey's absence, should be a sex-starved heavy-metal type whose voice is always straddling a scream. What sounds other than these could better depict the angular yearnings of a people struggling to stay upright in a country rent by conflict and confusion?
Director Rachel Chavkin and choreographer Sam Pinkleton have staged things with a gusto that cannily balances the frantic demands of the action with the restrictions of the setting. (Mimi Lien designed the red-swathed set, which Bradley King has persuasively lit; the excellent costumes are by Paloma Young.) And every performance is remarkable for its deep commitment to both the story and the conceit: If Soo, Ashford, and McLean are among the foremost of the standouts because they find the best balance between subcutaneous ache and the skin-flailing demands of the score (which musical director Or Matias attacks with ferocity) it's only because they have the juiciest, most complex material to bring to life.
Precious little is lacking here, but the few stumbles that do occur are generally because of the concept. Aside from the faint notion that there's little distinction between drunken revelry and a disintegrating society, Chavkin never fully justifies the characters' presence in this tavern of life. Because Kazino is both extremely long and extremely narrow (in a way that Ars Nova, where the show premiered last fall, is not) the performers deliver their lines and lyrics from anywhere and everywhere, including at and atop tables, so determining who's where when they're singing, and why, may require more mental energy than you need to (or should have to) expend on such trivialities. And Malloy's injection of an second-act showstopper about Anatole's troika driver demonstrates that he's not always willing to eschew the extraneous.
But when everything is right, which it is by far the majority of the time, you're truly transported. At no time is this more true than in the final moments, when Malloy, so bracingly, winningly avuncular as the aging and annoyed left-behind Pierre, casts his eyes to the sky to stare at the titular heavenly body he's sure holds the key to the questions he's so often pondered, even though it's looked upon by many as a harbinger for the End Times.
"It seems to me that this comet / Feels me," Pierre sings, suffused with the contentment he's so frequently been denied. "Feels my softened and uplifted soul / And my newly melted heart / Now blossoming / Into a new life." His experience is a transformative one that, in light of the violent sweep of all that's come before, packs a deeper and more profound punch than has been the case with any other new musical this spring. This is Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 at its most fulfilling, but from start to finish it's as satisfying a theatrical buffet as you're likely to find in New York this summer.
Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812