News Column

Natasha, Pierre, Imelda Marcos and you: Immersive new Off-Broadway musicals

July 14, 2013

YellowBrix

July 14--For musical theater with inventive staging, inspired scoring and a pulsating sense of immediacy (and intimacy), Off Broadway has been the place to be lately.

Two New York shows are exciting critics and audiences this summer by challenging preconceived notions about popular musical theater. Also, by example, they may embolden other theater makers -- including like-minded artists in Seattle -- to push the envelope.

What does "Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812" have in common with David Byrne's Imelda Marcos bio-musical, "Here Lies Love"? A sense of the audience being in on the act -- in ways essential to the performance. (The au courant buzzword: immersive theater.) Also, each has a unique physical ambience quite different from a standard proscenium presentation, matched with a unique musical environment.

Composer-actor-writer Dave Malloy's much-touted "Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812" does the previously unimaginable: It turns Leo Tostoy's magnum opus "War and Peace" (well, a good chunk of it) into an exhilarating supper party.

At a pop-up (temporary) theater space called Klub Kazino, in the swiftly gentrifying Meatpacking District, patrons enter an eye-popping dining hall adorned with chandeliers, and with heavy claret-red velvet curtains covered with Napoleonic-era themed paintings and kitschy Franco-Russian knickknacks.

While being served a family-style dinner that begins with borscht (chased if you like with vodka), you can't help wonder: Where do the players perform? There hardly seems room for them.

Which is no accident. As the pop-opera show kicks in, cast members sing and emote from narrow runways along the walls, from tiny platforms, from the aisles between tables and occasionally from the laps of patrons.

The show is a remarkably deft adaptation, by the hyper-creative Malloy, of a segment of "War and Peace" suffused with romance and heartbreak.

Lovely young Natasha (Phillipa Soo) enters Moscow society, but creates scandal by falling for the rogue Anatole, while her first love Prince Andrei is far off battling Napoleon's army. Sympathetic family friend Pierre (played by Malloy when I saw the show, but now portrayed by David Abeles) eventually intervenes on Natasha's behalf -- first out of pity, which turns (as a dazzling comet lights the sky) into love.

As the music strikes up, and the book's characters are introduced in comic buffo style, you wonder if you're in for a meal of wise-ass lit-lampoonery.

But as the actors and musicians dart forth from every direction, I quickly became entranced with Malloy's witty, rhapsodic "electro-pop" music (gypsy serenades, love ballads, rock arias, etc.) and his Tolstoy-faithful libretto. "Natasha, Pierre ... " balances amusing antics and satire, with real feeling and heart. And it weaves you into the story -- as you're asked to pass a secret love letter intended for Natasha, or when a performer serenades you face to face.

"Here Lies Love" asks something else of patrons. This Public Theatre hit was first conceived by its pop-star composer David Byrne as a concept album, a kind of Filipino "Evita."

The theatrical format gathers the audience into a vast, open playing area to stand and dance throughout the 90-minute show. (Some balcony seats are available, but the view is much better below.) The story of former Filipino first lady Imelda Marcos unfolds from mobile stages, as the dancing and singing ensemble literally moves the show around you, continually reconfiguring the stage and sweeping you along on a tide of choreographed history.

The effect is electric and brilliantly realized in the complex but smooth-running direction of Alex Timbers. Watching Imelda (the superb Ruthie Ann Miles), change from sweet country beauty queen to steel orchid, and her husband Ferdinand Marcos (Jose Llana) from charismatic political reformer to callous dictator, you become part of the crowd at a campaign rally, a protest march, and you dance along at the disco. (Imelda adored discos.)

As walls of projected media images chronicle the Marcos regime to its corrupt and bloody end, the audience becomes the Filipino people -- seduced by iconography, then betrayed, then moved to revolution. The score of cool, expertly crafted pop tunes has a 1960s-'70s gleam as the perfect soundtrack and framing device.

As dynamic and well-received as these Off-Broadway shows are, as eager as audiences are to play along, their runs can't extend further without large, flexible spaces to transfer to -- no cinch in the country's most expensive urban real-estate market.

How hospitable would Seattle be to such productions? How interested/involved are our theater artists in similar experiments? We'll look into immersive theater, Seattle-style, later this summer.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattle.com

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