By Robert Feldberg
Amid the trendy boutiques and restaurants in New York's voguish meatpacking district, right under the happening High Line, an unlikely white tent was recently raised on a vacant lot.
If you enter, you'll find a faux Russian supper club, with shiny red banquettes and paintings of 19th century individuals who might have been personally known to Czar Alexander I.
But I'm getting ahead of the story.
Seven years ago, Dave Malloy got a job playing the piano on a cruise ship. To keep close, he and his girlfriend at the time, who remained ashore, came up with an idea.
"We decided we would read a gigantic novel [simultaneously]," he recalled the other day at the club, which is actually a theater set with food service. "We chose 'War and Peace.' And when we got to this particular section -- it was about 70 pages -- it struck us that this was the heart of the novel. And with my love for musicals, I thought, 'This would be perfect for a show.' I filed the idea away."
In 2011 -- much good had happened to him professionally in the interceding years -- Malloy was commissioned to write a musical by Ars Nova, a small off-Broadway company.
He retrieved that sliver of Tolstoy's epic novel -- the portion centers on a seduction and a betrayal and their consequences -- and turned it into "Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812."
After an acclaimed run at Ars Nova last fall, it's been installed at the "supper club," named Kazino, which was built for that purpose. Previews started last week, with the opening scheduled for May 16.
Like "Here Lies Love," the David Byrne disco musical that recently opened at the off-Broadway Public Theater, "Natasha" is attempting to create a physically close, emotionally intimate connection between audience and performers.
"We'd like to take people back to 1812," said director Rachel Chavkin. "Drinking vodka, eating dumplings, we want them to get swept up in the characters and the story." (A full dinner is served, pre-show and during intermission.)
The actor-singers in the all-sung show perform on several small stages around the perimeter of the space, and also among the tables, sometimes nudging a patron so they can sit down themselves.
Malloy said he first appreciated the impact of space-sharing, with refreshments, when his spoofy musical "Beowulf -- a Thousand Years of Baggage" went on tour.
"It was performed in a lot of rock clubs," he said, "and it just unlocked the piece. It felt so much looser, freer."
Malloy and Chavkin, who's cofounder of a collaborative stage troupe, are part of a younger generation of artists who seem as interested in finding new ways to present and experience theater as they are in cracking the Establishment.
They previously worked together on the off-Broadway success "Three Pianos," in which Malloy and two other pianists played and discussed Schubert's "Winterreise," with many digressions, as wine flowed freely in the audience.
Malloy, who's also acting in "Natasha," playing the melancholy Pierre, wrote a remarkable range of songs for the show, in a score that's as difficult to pigeonhole as the production itself.
"I write in a very eclectic style," he said. "There's Russian music, of course, and folk music, and rock. There's also electronic music," which is the signature sound for the immoral Anatole, who seduces the innocent Natasha.
"There's also a song that sounds like Joni Mitchell," added Chavkin.
When you do theater that takes place within the audience, there's always the chance of someone saying or doing something that disrupts the rhythm of the show.
And for a precisely staged and choreographed production like "Natasha," that might seem a particular dread.
Not so, said Malloy, genial and low-key, but with a wisp of a devilish grin. "We love the unexpected. It's fun."
(c) 2013 Record, The; Bergen County, N.J.. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.
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