What's Russian for chutzpah? Whatever the word, Dave Malloy has enough of it to fill all of Siberia. Who else would dare to adapt Leo Tolstoy's doorstop of a novel War and Peace into a two-and-a-half-hour sung-through pop opera called Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812? Let alone orchestrate it himself, then star as the dissolute Moscow aristocrat Pierre, who's drawn into the drama surrounding a too-easily corrupted young countess named Natasha (Smash's Phillipa Soo).
The funny thing is that it all works. The much-streamlined story captures the essence of Tolstoy's meandering epic and its intrinsic Russian-ness, while still building to a surprisingly moving finale of longing and loss. Plus, Malloy has written a memorable and modern score that blends Russian folk melodies with pop-music hooks and occasional dance beats of the sort you might hear at any of the neighboring clubs in the Meatpacking District. (The show, which played last year at Ars Nova's tiny Off Broadway theater, is being revived this summer in a luxe new space located just beneath the Highline.)
Malloy has found a kind of folk idiom for the recitative numbers, which efficiently shoulder the brunt of the plot although his lyrics are sometimes a bit of a mouthful. But he really shines when he steps back from mere exposition with songs that provide a modern gloss on the material (''In 19th-century Russia, we write letters, we write letters'') or deepen our understanding of the mercifully abbreviated cast of characters. One of the story's second fiddles, Natasha's cousin Sonya (Brittain Ashford), even snags the show's best song, a plaintive ballad about loyalty that comes early in the second act.
Matching Malloy's ambition is a physical production that's fit for a czar. Producers have set up a tricked-out super-tent as a glorified dinner theater that fits up to 199. The rectangular space offers three levels of cabaret seating, with stage platforms snaking throughout, all lined with red velvet curtains and period-looking art in old-timey frames. (The stunning scenic design is by Mimi Lien.) Audiences are encouraged to arrive at least a half hour before the curtain time to partake of a full meal with Russian accents borscht in a shot glass, potato and cheese dumplings, and airline-meal portions of shrimp cocktail, grilled chicken, salmon, and beef carpaccio. The meal, as well as your first libation, is included in the ticket price; you can order additional drinks at intermission or after the show. There's no service mid-performance. (And since this is the Meatpacking District, real-life oligarchs can also shell out $5,000 for a private booth that seats eight people and includes caviar, seafood towers, as well as premium champagne, wine, and vodka.)
The cabaret approach to the material is no mere gimmick. Director Rachel Chavkin ingeniously stages the action so that performers walk among the pizza-pan-size tables, occasionally pulling up a chair to sit beside you. And the space, dubbed Kasino, is small enough so that you never miss the action even if you have to crane your neck a bit to follow the fast-moving cast.
Some of the performances, including Blake DeLong as an aged and addled prince (and Natasha's prospective father-in-law) and Grace McLean as Natasha's protective godmother, teeter uncomfortably close to caricature. But most strike a balance between theatricality and fully grounded humanity. Malloy brings a world-weariness and vocal growl to the intellectual Pierre. Lucas Steele is dashingly caddish as the lothario Anatole who seduces the already-betrothed Natasha. And the radiant Soo plays Natasha with heart-on-her-sleeve innocence. By the end of this sensational and singular Off Broadway production, there may not be a dry eye in the dacha. A–
(Tickets: Kazinonyc.com or 866-811-4111)