To find out where the musical is going these days, you may have to follow it into a tent. Not Pippin’s big top on Broadway but the one nestled beneath the High Line at West 13th Street, where Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, Dave Malloy’s enthralling take on Tolstoy, is playing. Actually, there’s some confusion about the setting: The tent, once you enter it, turns into a Russian supper club called Kazino, kitted out gorgeously by the designer Mimi Lien in miles of red velvet hung with framed czarist portraits. A light Russian dinner (including borscht, pierogies, vodka, and what unfortunately tasted one night like vintage black bread) is included with your $125 ticket. But the show presented right in the midst of 199 patrons at tables and bars has little to do with bread or circuses. Rather, it describes itself in its lyrics as both a novel and an opera (and, sure enough, is completely sung) while also incorporating flourishes of a cabaret act, a floor show, a Broadway music drama, and — why not? — a naughty stag party.
Perhaps the conceptual tangle is meant to recall the knottiness of the section of War and Peace that Malloy has chosen to musicalize. Pulled like a thread from the huge garment of the great work’s book two, it’s the story of Natasha Rostov, a dewy 19-year-old daughter of the doomed cosmopolitan Francophone nobility. Though she is engaged to Prince Andrey, who is off fighting Napoleon, Natasha falls under the spell of a handsome and inconveniently married rascal named Anatole. The Pierre of the title (played by Malloy because, hey, it’s his show and who’s going to stop him?) is an old friend of the Rostovs and a confidant of the conflicted Andrey; he is also the husband of the faithless Hélène, who is Anatole’s brother and — it is rather complicated. As the opening number explains:
… this is all in your program
You are at the opera
Gonna have to study up a little bit
If you wanna keep with the plot
And it’s a complicated Russian novel
Everyone’s got nine different names
So look it up in your program
Everything will be clear
It is clear, mostly, at least as far as the plot is concerned; soon enough you stop checking the family tree (helpfully rendered with drawings of the cast) and staring pitifully at your empty vodka glass. But while the story eventually clicks nicely into place, just as it does when reading the novel, for way too long it fails to engage at a deeper level. The tireless inventiveness of Rachel Chavkin’s direction and musical staging are, paradoxically, part of the problem: The presentation of the material, clearly meant to be immersive, is often distancing instead. It’s not just the wearying lack of a fourth wall — or rather, the fact that the audience is trapped on the same side of the fourth wall as the actors; you may have to scooch your chair aside so Natasha and her cousin can have a tête-à-tête at your table, or wring yourself like a washcloth to locate the action flung all over the large space. (Bradley King’s very pretty lighting does not always manage to focus your attention.) Those things are more or less amusing depending on your tolerance for audience interaction and the condition of your rotator cuffs.
But the gyrations of the point-of-view are more seriously disorienting. Sometimes the story is enacted, sometimes it’s presented in direct address; sometimes it’s described from an unspecified authorial perspective. It’s as if there were a dial that kept being switched among third and second and first person. In the show’s amusing getting-to-know-you song, that dial switches with every line as each character sings of his or her own attributes. “Hélène is a slut,” sings Hélène, echoed by the ensemble; likewise, “Anatole is hot.” (Played by Lucas Steele, he is.)
And the songs, though attractive and characterful, have an emo quality that does not for the most part lock you into the particulars of the story, despite sleigh bells and klezmer effects. (The eight-piece band and the cast of sixteen, under the music direction of Or Matias, sound terrific.) Malloy lets too many nifty melodic ideas dribble away. And his lyrics, alternating between paraphrases of a 1922 translation of Tolstoy and a decidedly contemporary gonna/wanna diction, are often perplexing when they make their anachronistic jokes. At one point, the self-loathing Pierre sings:
I sit at home and read
Hours at a time
Hours at my screen
Abandoned to distraction
Are we in 1812 or 2012? The promiscuous attitude toward time is clearly meant to encourage a modern audience’s connection to the material — a tactic frequently seen these days in downtown period musicals such as Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Here Lies Love. (Baz Luhrmann has long beaten moviegoers with the same shtick.) The eclectic and often very revealing costumes by Paloma Young, tossing together regimental frock coats and Empire gowns with sleeveless T-shirts and punky armbands, are similarly designed to sex up the story. (The appropriation of S&M accoutrements and attitudes to signal general sexiness in musicals has now reached Madonna proportions.) But when our own customs of speech and dress and social interaction are substituted for the ones that produced the story in the first place, the story stops making sense. Natasha’s near ruin seems absurd in a setting that blurs the distinction between a “slut” and a saloniste. Fun though they may be, such disjunctures generally come off as sophomoric. The audience can’t help feeling a kind of perspectival vertigo: Are we loving the story or condescending to it?
Malloy seems to be at least partly aware of this. When Natasha (the lovely Phillipa Soo) first spots Anatole, at the opera, she sings a brilliantly conceived (and staged) number that describes what an audience member who is only intermittently engaged by the action might experience:
Grotesque and amazing
I cannot follow the opera
Or even listen to the music
I see painted cardboard
Queerly dressed actors
Moving and singing so strangely in the lights
So false and unnatural
I’m ashamed and amused
This number, halfway through the first act, was the first time I didn’t feel I was watching something “so false and unnatural” myself. It was not the last time, though; eventually the show’s sarcastic veneer begins to delaminate, and the core material is allowed to shine honestly. The actors stop using their own performances as commentary, the stakes rise, et voila, you’ve got drama, not just entertainment. By the end, Malloy even pulls out a gorgeous anthem (he sings it movingly, too) about the title comet as it passes over a city soon to be burned. Just in time, Pierre and the musical find a coherent sense of purpose and know exactly what to do with it.
Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 is at Kazino through September 1.