When you think of WAR AND PEACE, you imagine the sheer heft of the novel with its massive cast of characters. You wouldn’t think Tolstoy’s masterpiece could even be contained in a modern (pop opera) musical. Well, it can. Director Rachel Chavkin’s extraordinary production of Dave Malloy’s adaptation, called NATASHA, PIERRE AND THE GREAT COMET OF 1812, has completely transformed the American Repertory Theater into a 360 degree, very Russian, opulent playing space—and you’re right in the thick of it.
You’re surrounded by characters who crave meaning, intensity and desire…who are devoted to the pursuit of passion: Sometimes hopelessly, sometimes perilously, sometimes for the better. Malloy’s lyrics employ, and pay homage to, Tolstoy’s text, even as they’re winking at the folly of the characters’ stilted, nineteenth century notions.
Chavkin and company fuse music, text and creative design into one all encompassing concept, swirling around the audience. The result is thrilling. Throbbing, electronic chords match the urgency of the characters’ pursuits and a cast of twenty two (plus a ten piece orchestra) feud, fight and love, the Russian way, with all their heart and soul. Malloy’s seductive music pulses with familiar Russian rhythms, reaching fever pitch in the wildly entertaining drinking scenes.
The characters may be facing Tolstoy’s obstacles but they struggle like Chekov’s disillusioned Muscovites: Natasha (the lovely Denee Benton) is engaged to the patriotic Prince Andrey (Nicholas Belton in two impressive roles, the Prince and his addled father) but while he is away in the army, Natasha is swept off her feet by a handsome cad (Lucas Steele in a tour de force). His scheming sister (a vibrant Lilli Cooper) conspires with her brother to deceive the innocent country girl. Her husband, the Pierre of the title (the immensely sympathetic Scott Stangland) drinks to forget he is married to her.
The plot may seem familiar but the staging isn’t. You’re immersed in a unique world with audacious stagecraft, dazzling costumes (Palomoa Young mixes 19th and 21st centuries to create hip, amusing hybrids) and cheeky songs like “Andrey Isn’t Here” or “We Write Letters” and gorgeous ballads like “I Will Stand Outside Your Door” for Sonya (a luminous Brittain Ashford). It’s an exhilarating experience. Don’t miss it.
Word to the wise: Friends who sat on the floor in the middle or in the newly fabricated banquette seating to the rear of the playing area couldn’t hear as well as we, in the old permanent A.R.T. raked seats, did. It’s location, location, location as they say in the old country.