Arriving from the smoky, crowded streets of Times Square, it’s hard not to be shocked by the interior of Klub Kazino, a tent-turned-supper club only recently repurposed as a theater. While it is itself a work of spectacle, lined with red velvet and housing starburst chandeliers reminiscent of those at the Metropolitan Opera, Kazino plays host to a production that spectacularly outdoes even its environs. “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812,” written and composed by Dave Malloy, is adapted from about 100 pages of Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” and infused with an electro-pop orchestration to create an opera of sorts.
The production makes a grand attempt at keeping Tolstoy’s characteristically complex narrative as simple as possible. When Prince Andrei Bolkonsky leaves for the Napoleonic Wars, his fiancée, the young and beautiful Natasha Rostova, remains behind in Moscow. Interacting with fine society for the first time, she mingles with grace and poise, until she meets the strutting, handsome party boy, Anatol Kuragin. His suave and charm are enough to remove Andrei from her heart and replace him with Anatol. She attempts to elope with him, but her plan is discovered at the last moment. Anatol is banished from Moscow by his brother-in-law and the Tolstoyan protagonist, Pierre, who has spent the entire play moping and philosophizing.
Phillipa Soo takes up the role of Natasha, singing beautifully and passionately, and bringing out the naïveté and foolishness of the play’s central figure. Opposite her, Lucas Steele, playing Anatol, hits his high notes perfectly and fully displays the despicable selfishness that nearly ruins Natasha’s life. Meanwhile, the understudy, Luke Holloway, brings the pensive and heavy-drinking Pierre to life subtly and without flourish, just as the character would have desired.
While maintaining the complexities of relationships between the characters (and explaining them in the first song), the opera strips away the beautiful Tolstoyan language and philosophy, leaving only the human drama. Without these intricacies, and with the need to encapsulate hundreds of pages of background, every character becomes supercharged—a caricature of themselves.
While the characters and songs are simple and straightforward, the mise-en-scène is anything but. A raised stage surrounds the diners, and actors are not afraid to interact with the audience, incorporating them, momentarily, into the drama. The fourth wall is constantly broken, to everyone’s enjoyment. For a tent, Kazino also contains a lighting scheme that rivals many Broadway theaters, which it employs with gusto. Meanwhile, the production constantly shifts between Tolstoy’s past and our present, winking at the audience with a modern club scene while dressing its characters in the height of Russian fashion from the period.
Since the play ends long before Napoleon can march on Moscow hundreds of pages later, this self-contained episode is but a sliver of the greater work. But “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” excels at distilling it from what Henry James called “the large loose baggy monster” of “War and Peace.” Saturated with the emotions of love, lust, shame, and emptiness, “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” offers a gaudy spectacle of imperial Russia, complete with borscht and black bread.
Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, which opened Sept. 27, has a limited 14-week run at Klub Kazino, at 259 W. 45th St, between 7th and 8th avenues. Tickets start at $125.