May 22, 2013

Russian Nights with "Natasha" and "Nikolai"

Who knew that Russians would be so hip this spring? The Encores! series just finished its season with a production of Rodgers and Hart’s gangsters-and-Russian ballet musical On Your Toes. And in successive evenings last week, my theatergoing buddy Bill and I saw Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812 and Nikolai and The Others, two shows that deal in very different ways with the mad passion for life and the simultaneous melancholy about how it will turn out that define the Russian character.  

My feelings about the shows are similarly mixed and since last Saturday's post was so paltry, I'm going to go on a bit longer than I usually do and wrap two reviews in one so that I can tell you about both of them.

The buzziest of the two is Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812, which gained some notoriety this past weekend when a writer for the "National Review" wrote about an altercation with another audience member that resulted in his smashing her cellphone and guards evicting him (click here to read his account of the incident).
But even before that drama, Natasha, Pierre had a noteworthy run last year at Ars Nova and landed on several year-end bests lists. I’d skipped that earlier production, thinking that a technopop opera based on a tiny 70-page segment from Tolstoy’s gargantuan novel  “War and Peace” sounded too precious. 

But, eager to see what all the fuss was about, I bought tickets the moment I heard that Natasha, Pierre was coming back. And the news that the producers would be setting up a tent in the Meatpacking District, outfitting it as a nightclub called Kazino and including a Russian-inspired meal in the $125 price of the ticket (we scored a discount) made the show sound even more enticing. 

The inside of the show's pop-up club turned out to be decorated with 19th century portraits (including a huge one of Napoleon, whose war with the Russians provides the backdrop for the novel and the musical.)  Guests are seated at banquets along the red velvet walls or at tiny circular tables.

The meal—thimble-sized glasses of borscht and vodka, some wilted raw vegetables, a few slices of tasty black bread, small bits of broiled chicken and salmon over a spoonful of pilaf and a plate of pierogi—wasn’t bad but it left me hungry for something more substantial (I raided the frig when I got home.) And I felt the same way about the show.  
It pivots around Natasha, a young noblewoman who is engaged to Andrey, an upstanding prince who is away fighting, and seduced by Anatole, a more profligate prince. The plot also includes the goings-on of a half dozen others, including the titular Pierre, a rich and well-meaning aristocrat who is ill at ease in Russian society. 
Their stories unfold right on the dining room floor, with the actors snaking their way around the tables and clambering up on the small platforms placed around the room. All of them are good but Phillipa Soo is particularly lovely as Natasha and Lucas Steele brings just the right amount of bad-boy sexiness to Anatole.
But most of the praise has been directed at Dave Malloy, who adapted the book, composed the music, wrote the lyrics, orchestrated the score, and plays piano and accordion in addition to portraying Pierre (click here to read a Q&A with him.

An eight-piece orchestra seated around the room provides the rest of the music—a mashup of techno, Russian folk tunes and emo ballads—and the musicians even join in a couple of the dance numbers, choreographed with great brio by Sam Pinkleton.  

The whole thing adds up to another of the immersive theater experiences that are packing in the young audiences producers crave and delighting critics who are equally desperate for something new.
I’ve become a convert to immersion too (click here to read my review of David Byrne’s Here Lies Love) but, despite all the critical acclaim it’s received (click here to read some of the raves), Natasha, Pierre didn’t do it for me. 
With the exception of one haunting ballad—sung by Brittain Ashford as Natasha’s cousin Sonya—none of the music stood out and the rest of the show, including the hyperkinetic staging by Rachel Chavkin, seemed like a project put together by the smart kids at theater camp.  

But the show does seem to be reaching its target audience.  Bill spotted a mother and her teenage daughter looking through the program as we all waited in the subway.  “What did you think?” he asked.  The daughter clutched the Playbill to her chest, “I loved it,” she said.
I had thought I would love Nikolai and the Others. For playwright Richard Nelson’s drama focuses on the interconnecting lives of George Balanchine, Igor Stravinsky and other Russian artists who emigrated to the U.S. right before and after World War II, bringing with them a more cosmopolitan sensibility to American culture.  

And as if that weren't enough, the show is directed by the always-adroit David Cromer and its 18-member cast is lead by such powerhouse performers as Michael Cerveris, John Glover, Stephen Kunken, Blair Brown and the 88 year-old vet Alvin Epstein.

Alas, the whole turns out to be less than the sum of its impressive parts. Nelson places his characters at a farm in Westport, Conn., where a group of Russian émigrés have gathered on a weekend in 1948 to celebrate the “name day” of the set designer Sergey Sudeikin and to preview Orpheus, the Balanchine-Stravinsky collaboration that launched New York City Ballet later that year. 
But, as Nelson explains in a program note, lots and lots of liberties have been taken. In real life, Balanchine first showed Stravinsky the ballet in New York. The real-life Sudeikin died in 1946. And there was no farm. 
None of that might matter if Nelson had been as inventive in coming up with some narrative drive to move his plot along. Instead, he has said that he didn’t want to write a political play. That stance has caused him to bypass a wonderful opportunity that might have produced a more substantial work. 
The titular character is Nikolai Nabokov, a composer and cousin to the celebrated novelist, who worked with the CIA when the fledgling agency was trying to enlist artists in its culture war against the Soviet Union.  
The Nikolai of the play is the most assimilated of the émigrés and caught uncomfortably between the worlds as he serves as a fixer for the problems his countrymen encounter while trying to appease the anxious Americans who want favors in return for the help that is given. 

But Nelson only touches lightly on this dilemma while devoting most of the play's two hours to quotidian gossip (several of the characters were at one time romantically involved) and reminiscences about the old days.
Fortunately for him—and for theatergoers—he’s got a top-shelf cast of actors who know how to work the interstices in the dialog. Kunken wonderfully conveys how Nikolai's sense of responsibility rubs against the resentment he feels for being the least gifted amidst this gaggle of geniuses. And Cerveris so embodies Balanchine that it’s almost eerie (click here to read an interview with the actor).

Meanwhile Cromer orchestrates the actors so deftly that even with all the comings and goings required for 18 characters, nothing seems awkward or hurried. In one delightful bit of stagecraft, the Russians speak unaccented English when they are speaking to one another in Russian and with pronounced Russian accents when they are speaking English to outsiders like Balanchine’s wife, the ballerina Maria Tallchief, or the visiting American diplomat Chip Bohlen.

And there is the extra treat of seeing excerpts from Orpheus, beautifully performed by Natalia Alonso as Tallchief and Michael Rosen as her partner Nicholas Magallanes (click here to see a montage of scenes from the production). 

Later, Bill suggested that it would have been really cool if City Ballet, now in the middle of its spring season, had scheduled complete performances of Orpheus during the run of Nikolai and the Others.  But I guess it just didn't know that Russians were going to be so hip.

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