05/16/2013 07:09 pm ET Updated Jul 16, 2013

First Nighter: "Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812" Doesn't Quite Zoom Across the Tuner Sky

Call it "interactive." Call it "immersive." Call it whatever contemporary term you will. Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812--the musical now transferred from Ars Nova to the Meatpacking District's three times as large pop-up-like Kazino--can most accurately be categorized as that often derided night-out pastime: dinner theater.
Yes, tuner followers, though many advocates of this War and Peace adaptation-redaction are greeting it as a refreshing and exciting new direction for the American musical comedy, it's hardly that. The Transport Group's 2011 revival of Michael John LaChiusa's Hello Again in a Soho walk-up outfitted like a cabaret room was much the same thing--only better.
Okay, there is one significant difference between the two. At Natasha..., an actual theme-oriented dinner is served--and it's a tasty one--whereas at Hello Again, only chocolates were put on the tables, and I can't remember whether they were even meant for the patrons as well as the performers.
But what about the work itself, which swirls around the audience as dizzily as Natasha (pretty, sweet-singing Phillipa Soo) is whirled around during the ball where that bounder Anatole (Lucas Steele, more than convincing as a cad) makes his play for her while her intended, Andrey (the good but underused Blake Delong)?
For the couple of hours Natasha... unfolds, it's sorta, kinda fun while focusing less on the war aspects of Leo Tolstoy's classic novel of early 19th-century Russia than on the peace sections. Or maybe they should be called the "piece" sections, since the attention here is beamed on innocent Moscow-newcomer Natasha's undoing by Anatole, who regards the dear girl as nothing much more than a living-breathing piece of sexual pleasure.
Granted, there's nothing wrong with librettist-songwriter-orchestrator-instrumentalist Dave Malloy of Three Pianos--who also appears as depressed and scruffy Pierre--and 360-degree-directing Rachel Chavkin extracting what entices them of the 1215-page opus. (That's as of the relatively recent Richard Pevear-Larissa Volokhonsky translation.) Many of the thick volume's deeply examined themes (the lecture on the meaning of history, the long slog against invading Napoleon) aren't the stuff of rousing entertainment.
So happily, there are several moments when Malloy and Chavkin succeed in theatricalizing War and Peace incidents. The pivotal ball is one for its evocation of the swoony atmosphere in which an impressionable young woman can spiral romantically. (Sam Pinkleton is the choreographer.) The visit to a theater for a strange performance has a welcome surreal effect. The floor shakes during the second-act interlude called "Balaga"--named after the troika driver transporting what seems like the entire troupe to some hotsy-totsy destination.
And that hard-working bunch--members of whom in Paloma Young's Empire costumes are often asked to deal directly with the dinner-theater-goers--earns commendation. (On the actor-patron front, I was handed a note during a love-letter-writing sequence and was going to hand it back with my phone number added but wasn't allowed the opportunity.)
Of the ensemble, my favorites were Brittain Ashford as Natasha's concerned BFF Sonya and Gelsey Bell, who didn't have enough to do as Andrey's solemn, father-pecked spinster sister Mary. But even those who were overacting had the advantage of seeming to be Russians of the era behaving in their famously excessive manner. And my apologies to those thesps who by bad luck had to interact with audience curmudgeons like me, the fogeys who want to be left alone at events like these.
But what was the cause of my abiding curmudgeonliness? I can explain it in nine words: Malloy's music played by musicians deployed about the room. Evidently, times are changing, but I'm from that generation of musical comedy lovers who attended shows to hear songs. Sad to say, Natasha... has none. Check that. It may have four. There's one sung by Natasha, one by Sonya, the finale item sung by Pierre, and the "Balaga" group number. Of them, only the last truly hits the mark Malloy intends.
The remainder of the not-quite-sung-through, oom-pah-pah-rock score is nothing more than expositional lyrics riding clumsily on endless strings of uninteresting notes. When the height of lyric expression to which Malloy reaches in an ardent love song is "I will love you, Anatole/I'll do anything for you," serious trouble is brewing.
I'm not complaining that there isn't a single rhyme heard throughout. Even Stephen Sondheim's compulsive rhyming sometimes backfires. But were Malloy to field the occasional rhyme, he might find himself forced to turn the recalcitrantly prosaic into the helpfully poetic. Hold it. Perhaps he does attempt one rhyme, which is, however, an off-rhyme. It's couched in the couplet "If you wish to be my friend/Never speak of that again."
But about the music being uninteresting, check that, too. There is something interesting--but not favorably--about Malloy's melodies. They're not exactly lifted from Andrew Lloyd Webber, but they repeatedly bring the English countryside billionaire's composing to mind. In particular, Natasha's "Lost Natasha" ruminations about Andrey as opposed to Anatole keep suggesting the lovely Soo is about to break into "I Don't Know How to Love Him"--and/or snippets of "High Flying Adored."
No one's begging for 'Ochi Chernye" here--which is played over speakers during the intermission--but still. Imagine someone consciously or unconsciously cribbing from Lloyd Webber, who's already widely mocked for his Giacomo Puccini appropriations. But that's what you get. It's up to you to take it or leave it.
Reviewer's final note: During the intermission I ordered tea. Delivered to the table by a saucy waitperson with whom I was glad to interact were a cup of hot water and a tea bag. What?! This is a "Prevyet (Hello), Russia" occasion. Where was any evidence of a working samovar?