On the Beat

On the Beat

A hit (Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812) and a hit (The Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder) that misses.
by BRIAN KELLOW

On the Beat Soo sm 414
Phillipa Soo as Great Comet's Natasha
© Chad Batka 2014
On the Beat Comet Cover 414

COMPOSER/LYRICIST DAVE MALLOY got the idea for his off-Broadway hit Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, an adaptation of Tolstoy's War and Peace, in the most incongruous setting imaginable — while he was playing piano on a cruise ship passing through the Caribbean. "I had a girlfriend back on land," Malloy remembers, "and one of the things we decided we were going to do was to read an epic novel together, and give updates on what page we were each on. It was a very odd social environment for reading it. But I felt like an outsider, when it came to the social circles on the ship, and I felt I related to Tolstoy's Pierre as I was reading!" 

Having made his way through most of Dostoyevsky, as well as Anna Karenina, Malloy already had developed a deep fondness for Russian literature. When he reached the section of War and Peace on which The Great Comet is based, the idea for a pop opera sprang into his head fairly quickly. "That particular section of the book is very tightly, compactly plotted," he says. "I read that part in one sitting and had the idea pretty immediately after reading it." The Ars Nova Theater then gave him an open-ended commission. "I told them that I had this War and Peace idea, and I expected them to shoot it down, but they were super supportive." 

The Great Comet opened in fall 2012 for a five-week run in the ninety-nine-seat Ars Nova, received glorious reviews, was extended to a sixth week and sold out the entire run. It then transferred downtown, to the Klub Kazino, a temporary space constructed inside a tent in Manhattan's meatpacking district. After a smash summertime run there, The Great Comet packed its tent again, moving to a vacant lot in the heart of the theater district on West Forty-fifth Street, where again, it sold out until completing its run this winter. Now the original cast recording is available on GHOSTLIGHT RECORDS

Listening to the CD brings back all the joyous and kinetic magic of the stage show. The melancholy strains of traditional Russian music are fused with a thrilling variety of rock styles. Malloy gets everything off to a ripping start with his Prologue, which kids readers who have had to backpedal their way through the novel's confusing opening pages:

This is all in your program
You are at the Opera
Gonna have to study up a little bit
If you wanna keep with the plot
Cuz it's a complicated Russian novel
Everyone's got nine different names
So look it up in your program
We'd appreciate it, thanks a lot.

Perhaps my favorite number is the Act I ballad for Natasha (PHILLIPA SOO), "No One Else," which seems destined to be a classic. Occasionally, the lyrics give off a slight whiff of Les Miz banality, but more often they take you by surprise with their off-center wit. I laughed out loud when the demented Bolkonsky (BLAKE DELONG) sang, "I forget things / And I live in the past / I've aged so very much / People enjoy me though." I laughed again when the chorus sang, "In nineteenth-century Russia we write letters / We write letters / We put down in writing / What is happening in our minds." 

For his next project, Malloy has plans to musicalize yet another weighty and challenging novel — Moby-Dick.

SO MANY PEOPLE whose taste I respect have told me such good things about The Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder that at the January 8 performance I attended at Broadway's Walter Kerr Theatre, I began to wonder why I wasn't enjoying myself more. The musical, with book by ROBERT L. FREEDMAN, music by STEVEN LUTVAK, and lyrics by Freedman and Lutvak, has finally reached New York after an unusually difficult birthing process that spanned several years. Adapted from Roy Horniman's novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal — which was the basis for the classic 1949 English film comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets — it tells the story of Monty Navarro (BRYCE PINKHAM), a distant heir to the fortune of the aristocratic D'Ysquith family, who methodically proceeds to eliminate everyone who stands in his way to the money. 

Kind Hearts and Coronets, of course, is well known to lovers of Ealing comedy. The picture was a boon to audiences, since English movie screens didn't offer that many good laughs during World War II. The mood of the country was not geared toward comedy, though many of the dramas had elements of humor in them. A wartime film such as Brief Encounter or Vacation from Marriage might try to have some fun with the English way of life, but the tone was affectionate. The affection was still there in the Ealing films, but now the tone was satirical and often mildly perverse; with the war over, it was O.K. to take some shots at British life — such as Englishmen's fondness for jumping into women's clothing at the flick of a wrist. 

There's wit and imagination and a sense of play running all through The Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder. The show has an agreeable English music-hall feel to it. But ideally, a musical adaptation of a famous property should bring something distinctive to the transformation process, as The Light in the Piazza and Grey Gardens both did. Gentleman's Guide doesn't replace the Ealing spirit, or build on it, with anything very fresh of its own. The star performances are excellent: the brilliant JEFFERSON MAYS takes on the gallery of wacky heirs with terrific verve, and Pinkham gives a funny, fascinating glimpse of the serial killers that lurk in the hearts of milquetoasts. (There's sometimes a wonderfully manic touch of Dracula's Renfield in his performance.) I was completely taken with LISA O'HARE as Monty's love interest, Sibella; in "Poor Monty," she seemed to be channeling the young GLYNIS JOHNS. But despite Freedman's adroit, witty lyrics, Lutvak's music never achieves lift-off. Act II lags terribly. (The one high point is the farcical number "I've Decided to Marry You.") At one point I scribbled on my notepad, "I never need to see this again." But at least it let me down in an interesting way: I've never seen a musical with so many clever individual things going for it that left me feeling so dissatisfied. spacer

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Current Issue: January 2015 — VOL. 79, NO. 6