By Barry Bassis
What’s with all the plays with Russian titles this past season? There was “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” “Nikolai and the Others,” and “Natasha, Pierre And The Great Comet of 1812.” The last one is a musical based on part of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” and is being performed in Kazino, a supper club erected just for this show. Both the venue and the musical are worth taking in.
Unlike Sergei Prokofiev’s epic opera of “War and Peace,” “Natasha …” covers just the romantic part (a small section of the novel). This one is billed as an “electro-pop opera.” The audience gets to drink vodka, just like the characters, although you can substitute drinks. (A three-course Russian dinner is included in the ticket price). It’s an immersive experience. The musicians are placed around the room and the audience is mostly seated at communal tables. If you’re sitting at the end of the row, as I was, the performers will occasionally nudge you to move over so they can sit down.
The plot revolves around beautiful, innocent, 19-year old Natasha Rostov. She is engaged to Prince Andrey, who is serving on the front lines against Napoleon’s forces. Natasha and her cousin Sonya move to cosmopolitan Moscow. The incorrigible womanizer Anatole Kuragin is intent on seducing her. The boozy, ineffectual aristocrat Pierre Bezukhov (a friend of the Rostov family and of Andrey) has an unfaithful wife, Helene. The opening number tersely but wittily introduces them: “Anatole’s hot, Helene’s a slut, Sonya’s good.” The song also reminds the audience that the source is “a complicated Russian novel/Everyone’s got nine different names.” There’s a suspenseful love story, a duel and then the comet at the end. Thanks to director Rachel Chavkin who has the actors moving around the club, each of the performers makes an impression.
The cast is terrific, especially Phillipa Soo is a radiant Natasha, Lucas Steele as the good looking but devious Anatole and Dave Malloy as the accordion-playing world-weary Pierre. The highly talented Malloy also wrote the songs and the sounds range from Russian folk to pop, rock and country & western.
“Natasha, Pierre And The Great Comet of 1812” is running until Sept. 1st at Kazino (West 13th and Washington St.; 866-811-4111; ovationtix.com).
“Here Lies Love” is even more of an immersive experience. I knew the show was about Imelda Marcos (the former First Lady of the Philippines) so I thought the recommendation to wear comfortable shoes was a reference to her fascination with footwear. (She probably would have enjoyed “Kinky Boots.”) Anyway, it turned out that the stage moves and so does the audience. At least at “Natasha” you could sit and nosh. The show bears a resemblance to “Evita” in that it charts the rise of the central figure from poverty to becoming the wife of a dictator. It also covers her prior romance with Ninoy Aquino, who becomes her political enemy. Director Alex Timbers is certainly inventive, with actors popping up in different parts of the theater, a DJ, newsreel footage, and video projections. David Byrne and Fatboy Slim originally created the score as a concept album and it is highly engaging, as is Ruthie Ann Miles in the lead role. I enjoyed the show but frankly I found it physically uncomfortable. I would have preferred one of the seats in the balcony, but note that the less sedentary audience members were happily dancing to the music.
“Here Lies Love” is running at the Public Theater (425 Lafayette St.; 212-967-7555; publictheater.org) until July 28th. •