True, viewers who first saw the musical at Ars Nova last fall will have to adjust to these far less intimate surroundings. Director Rachel Chavkin's immersive concept for the production remains the same, with the show's performers often interacting with the audience, even singing while sitting at your table. But since Chavkin's staging utilizes every inch of the multi-tiered tent, sometimes it is hard to know where to look — or avoid experiencing whiplash.
Still, you'll always be sure of what's going on since Malloy, who crafted both the moving book and the eclectic pop-opera score, has actually done a remarkable job of condensing Leo Tolstoy's seminal novel War and Peace. The focus here is on the ill-fated love affair between the beautiful, naive countess Natasha Rostova (Phillipa Soo) and the dashing, slightly amoral soldier Anatole (the dreamy Lucas Steele). While Natasha heedlessly breaks off her engagement to Prince Andrey (Blake DeLong) to be with Anatole, their hasty elopement is ultimately prevented by Natasha's sensible cousin Sonya (Brittain Ashford) and godmother Marya (the excellent Grace McLean) after they learn he is already married.
The musical might even be more effective had it ended at that moment, before refocusing on the plight of Anatole's sulky brother-in-law Pierre (played by Malloy). Unhappily married to Anatole's sister, the hedonistic Hélène (the sensual Amber Gray), Pierre finally discovers a new attitude toward life and love after witnessing the Great Comet. But since he has seemed a minor player in this romantic drama (unlike in the novel), this quasi-epilogue seems unnecessary.
If there is anyone of whom we do want to see more, it is the enchanting Soo. Reminiscent of a young Audrey Hepburn (who played Natasha in the 1956 film version of War and Peace), Soo looks ethereal in Tony Award winner Paloma Young's costumes. More importantly, she brings an angelic presence to the confused, lovestruck young woman, especially when singing such plaintive ballads as "Natasha Lost" and "No One Else."
However, Malloy's greatest musical triumphs may be his witty, infectious group numbers, such as the "Prologue" that lays out how everyone in the story is related to everyone else, the delicious act-two opener, "Letters," and the raucous sequence celebrating carriage-driver Balaga (Paul Pinto), who is charged with helping Anatole and Natasha escape Moscow. In these songs, as well as throughout the show, the superb eight-piece band and spirited ensemble lend exceptional support.
While Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 is hardly a traditional theatergoing experience, heading to Kazino for the evening proves to be a rare gamble that pays off big!