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Review: Musical using Leo Tolstoy a messy thrill

Friday - 5/17/2013, 8:02am  ET

This undated theater image released by The Hartman Group shows Catherine Brookman in "Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812," a dinner theater performance that opened Thursday, May 15, 2013 in the meatpacking district of New York. (AP Photo/The Hartman Group, Chad Batka)

AP Drama Writer

NEW YORK (AP) -- What do you get when you take a 70-page melodrama at the center of "War and Peace" and turn it into a musical? Now layer dance music onto the traditional Russian folk music. Now put it in a tent. While you're at it, throw in a meal and strobe lights.

What you get is the thrilling and yet cluttered musical "Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812" -- a feast for the senses and an assault at the same time. Dinner theater has never seemed as un-dusty.

The sung-through musical premiered at New York City's Ars Nova in a seven-week run last year before finding a new 6,000-square-foot space in the meatpacking district. It opened Thursday.

Befitting the ultra-cool neighborhood's roots, the show packs so much in that it feels overstuffed -- snowflakes fall, strobe lights pulse, actors race about and smoke pours. It sometimes drags, the food isn't as well integrated into the show as it could be, and it often feels like an art project run amok.

And yet there's no denying that creator, composer and performer Dave Malloy has crafted a daring piece of theater. It just needs some editing.

Each ticket comes with a full Russian-themed meal -- borscht, dumplings, brown bread, pickled vegetables, chicken and salmon -- and a glass of wine or a cocktail. There's a full bar in back.

After the food is cleared, the 360-degree show begins. It centers on a bright young thing, Natasha, who falls for one man, only to be seduced later by another. The 16-person cast encourages you to follow the various turns of the thick plot via helpful program notes.

The show reaches for an immersive experience by trying to erase the line between audience and performer. You may find yourself asked to pass along a love letter, caressed by a pretty young thing, temporarily share a table with an actor or watch a shot of vodka slammed down on your table by a drunken soldier.

Malloy's songs are stunning in their breadth. While the music careens from Russian folk to thumping house beats to proto-rap, the lyrics are similarly establishing an uneven tone, slipping from heart-wrenchingly un-ironic -- "I love him/I love him" -- to the almost mockingly helpful -- "In 19th century Russia, we write letters."

The addiction to recitative and use of descriptive passages grows weary and sometime seems just plain odd -- "I throw my fur coat on my shoulders/Unable to find the sleeves," one character sings, as he finds the sleeves. Also it's unclear if Leo Tolstoy actually wrote the immortal line, "Shut your damn mouth!"

The lack of consistency in lyrics and music may be cool but it also acts as something of a coolant. With so many styles and sounds, it's hard to get invested in the show, no matter how good the performances are.

And they're good: As Natasha, Phillipa Soo, a recent Juilliard graduate, is simply a wonder, a delicate beauty with a strong emotional voice. She's almost as pretty as Lucas Steele, a strong singer and actor with Vogue model poses who triggers electronica whenever he appears.

Malloy as Pierre may not have the greatest voice, but he compensates by unleashing the force of his acting to devastating effect. (Plus, he wrote the show, so the kid stays in the play.)

The rest of the cast fully commits, never breaking character over the 2
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