We're warned early on that we're "gonna have to study up a little bit…cuz it's a complicated Russian novel," but it's truly not necessary to have read War and Peace to understand Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, Dave Malloy's clever distillation of Leo Tolstoy's epic classic novel, now at Ars Nova.
From the prologue, Malloy's libretto pokes fun at the complexity of the source material with considerable success. As his character Pierre, "a wealthy aristocrat having an existential crisis", he tells us in the opening lines that there's a war going on, and Andrei isn't here.
That turns out to be the most important fact about Andrei -- because his lack of presence will drive his fiancé, Natasha (Phillipa Soo), into the arms of a frightfully handsome yet married man, Anatole (Lucas Steele) – who is also Pierre's brother-in-law.
Costume designer Paloma Young's beautifully sketched family tree program insert goes a long way to clear up any confusion about the plot -- and her threads for the actors are equally lush, screaming lavish Russian royalty in the most decadent way.
Meanwhile, Mimi Lien's red-doused set is as lavish as it is welcoming. Guests are seated at intimate banquets and tables that are each equipped with a bottle of Tito's Handmade Vodka and a stack of disposable shot glasses. Waiters come by before the show to take additional drink orders and pass out plates of dumplings and bread, causing the space to feel less like a theater and more like a speakeasy.
Further, director Rachel Chavkin stages the action so fluidly that one always feels at the center of it even though the tables are scattered throughout the room.
Music plays a large part in the piece's success, as well. Six musicians (plus Malloy) encircle the audience, creating the effect of a much larger band. And while Malloy's score is billed as "electro-pop" it fluctuates between a modern beat and a more orchestral structure. It's sung through and often veers towards minimalism where whole verses are set to merely a couple notes.
Luckily, there are plenty of memorable melodies as well, including the cumulative song structure of the prologue (think "The Twelve Days of Christmas") that introduces each character and Pierre's infectious rhythmic wish: "Anatole. Find Anatole".
One of Malloy's best songs is the hip-hop infused second-act opener "letters" in which the talented 10-person cast join together to belt out a summary of the times: "In nineteenth century Russia we write letters / we write letters / we put down in writing / what is happening in our minds." Tolstoy couldn't have said it better.