When I saw this extraordinarily creative musical in 2013 as a dinner theater production in the meat packing district staged in a tent designed to look like a posh restaurant, I wondered what the show would look like on a regular stage. Now I know, although the Imperial Theater, where the Ars Nova production has been revived, has had its normal proscenium stage radically redesigned for the occasion. Upon entering one is dazzled by the entire look of the stage and the seating arrangement.
There are tiers and byways in the now-elaborate playing area, with audience members seated on various levels of the stage, and some at tables. Even the front part of the orchestra has small tables beside some of the seats. The entire set-up is a spectacle in itself (scenic design by Mimi Lien), with a markedly Russian motif.
When the show, with music, lyrics, book and orchestration by David Malloy, adapted from Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” begins, its huge cast, colorfully costumed by Paloma Young, dramatically appears. The performers move intricately through the aisles on stage and off, even running up side ramps to circulate in the mezzanine. At times it would seem that they need a traffic cop. Actually they have two traffic cops, director Rachel Chavkin and choreographer Sam Pinkleton. All of the movement and interaction with audience members add to the excitement.
But when all is said and done, the acting and singing carry the day and stir emotions. The score is dynamic and intriguingly varied, and there are outstanding performing turns.
On the night I attended, the role of Pierre, a rich aristocrat who is living an empty life of drink, spouting philosophy and doing nothing constructive, was played by standby Scott Stangland, replacing co-star Josh Groban for that performance. Stangland makes a terrific Pierre. He has an authoritative voice, especially demonstrated in his key duets. Pierre emerges with strength as the plot progresses and he rises to the challenge when he has to take decisive action.
Natasha, the leading lady is engaged to Andrey, who is away fighting in the war that is raging in 1812. Natasha is played by the luminous, golden-voiced Denée Benton. She moves and acts brilliantly, and when she smiles, she radiates sheer beauty. Benton works hard, too, dashing about and even going up to the mezzanine to get close to the audience there. Although the female star, she pitches in with the the show’s overall concept of nearly constant movement.
Trouble brews when Anatole, a cad who is already married, woos Natasha, who falls for him despite her ties to Andrey. Anatole is wonderfully played by Lucas Steele, whom I saw in the role downtown. He sings dashingly as the unscrupulous seducer, whom Pierre forces to leave Moscow to save Natasha. Upon learning that she has been betrayed by Anatole, she takes poison but survives. Andrey returns from battle, but cannot forgive her.
There are other fine performances, especially by Brittain Ashford as Natasha’s cousin Sonya, who is denounced by Natasha when Sonya condemns the relationship with Anatole and stresses how their families will be affected if her marriage to Andrey doesn’t go through. Sonya especially excels in her arias “Sonya Alone” and “Natasha Very Ill.”
If you want to see a particularly unusual show, head for the Imperial. The theater itself is something to see and experience in its new version revamped for this run. At the Imperial Theater, 249 West 45th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed November 20, 2016.