I had not seen this work in its earlier incarnations. Stodgy old me didn't like the idea of a musical in a faux nightclub where I would have been surrounded by people eating borscht and drinking vodka. So I waited to see it at the Imperial Theatre, which has been turned into a faux nightclub where there is no food and only the usual drink seller. Still, I sat next to a tiny nightclub table with a cute little lamp on it. Actually the transformation of the Imperial Theatre (aptly named for this adaptation of a section of WAR AND PEACE) into a large night club is one of the most impressive aspects of NATASHA, PIERRE, etc. Performers are everywhere--even on a playing area halfway up in the rear mezzanine. Director Rachel Chavkin and her designer Mimi Lien have created a thrilling piece of environmental theater inside an old Broadway barn. Even the entrance lobby of the Imperial has been transformed to look temporary. The old chandeliers have been replaced by fluorescent strips. I particularly like the witty imitations of the Metropolitan Opera's chandeliers. Like those at the Met, these rise and fall on cue. The central one becomes the comet Pierre sees.
Dave Malloy has chosen an early section of WAR AND PEACE. Headstrong teenage aristocrat Natasha has been betrothed to Andrei, despite the disapproval of Andrei's eccentric old father. When Andrei goes off to fight Napoleon, Natasha is restless and lonely, easy prey for a rake like Anatole, who is the brother-in-law of Pierre, a very lost young man interested only in reading mystical works and drinking himself into a stupor. Natasha is saved from ruin through the intervention of her sensible, devoted sister, Sonya and her strong mother but is so heartbroken that she attempts suicide. Pierre goes to console her but ends up declaring his love. He is trapped in a miserably unhappy marriage to Helene, who despises him and openly flaunts her adulteries. The musical ends with the moment Pierre sees the comet and vows to give his life some purpose. As you can see, a lot happens in NATASHA, PIERRE, etc., and all of it, save one crucial line, is sung.
My problem with the musical is that except for Pierre's music, beautifully sung by Josh Groban, and a song Sonya (Brittain Ashford), has about her relationship with her sister, I don't care much for the music. I emphasize that this is my problem. The score is certainly eclectic--some heavy rock, some quasi Russian, some ballads. Little is melodic in a conventional sense. Malloy's lyrics often seem to be more prose than poetry--at times they seem like bad translations of lyrics written in another language. A lot of the score sounds like recitative. It's not as clumsy as the four note recits in shows like EVITA or LES MISERABLES, but his music seems to be accompanying the words and not always having much intrinsic interest. Not caring for much of the music in a show that is all music is a problem.
Given this, the production is brilliant. As always in New York, the cast is brimming with talent. Denee Benton is a beautiful, mercuric Natasha with a lovely singing voice. Groban moves and acts like a defeated man. Lucas Steele has been directed to play Anatole as a cartoon cad, but he sings superbly. This is Tolstoy on steroids, not a proper Masterpiece Theatre version. It's great theatre, less great musical theatre.