CAMBRIDGE — Patrons strolling through the doors of the American Repertory Theater's Loeb Drama Center may feel they've somehow been transported into a sumptuous 19th-century Russian supper club. The stage is brimming with tiered red leather banquettes, cafe tables, winding staircases, and curving runways. Spiky metal chandeliers that resemble exploding planets dangle overhead. Red velvet drapes envelop the walls, hung with framed paintings evoking Russian culture. An ominous portrait of Napoleon lurks in the corner.
The ART's latest immersive spectacle is the electro-pop musical "Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812," adapted by composer Dave Malloy from a 70-page slice of Leo Tolstoy's epic doorstopper "War and Peace." With its sometimes wry lyrics and an eclectic score ranging from rock and electronica to strands of Russian folk, the show debuted in New York in 2012 at the experimental performance space Ars Nova and then moved to a pop-up tent near the High Line, dubbed Kazino, where dinner and drinks were served. It earned rave reviews and lots of buzz, ultimately moving to a tent near Times Square. Now the ART is mounting an enlarged version of "Great Comet," opening Sunday, that has its sights set on another commercial run, possibly on Broadway.
On a recent evening, director Rachel Chavkin is leading her 24-person cast during their first foray into the Loeb space. Actors and musicians are scattered throughout the venue's nooks and crannies and up into the aisles of the fixed seating area. A gaggle of performers — some grasping imaginary shot glasses as they sing, others playing instruments — shimmy along the runways. They're performing the rollicking, cheeky opening number, which introduces the various characters in a head-spinning torrent. "It's a complicated Russian novel / Everyone's got nine different names," sing the actors, in full snark.
The swirl of characters includes young Natasha, who falls under the spell of the handsome cad Anatole after arriving in Moscow; Sonya, Natasha's loyal cousin and friend; Marya D, a Moscow grande dame and Natasha's godmother; and the wealthy misanthrope Pierre, a bewildered drunk whose heart has been hardened by years of unhappy marriage and bitter regrets.
The challenge for Chavkin and choreographer Sam Pinkleton is to reimagine the production for a larger venue while maintaining the intimacy of the original, in which characters often plopped right down at audience members' tables, spoke directly to them, and even handed out love letters. They also need to ensure that characters and moments don't get lost as they unfold in an expansive playing space, designed by MacArthur "genius" fellow Mimi Lien.
"It's been this great problem-solving moment for us to essentially prove that the show can work in this enlarged setting," Chavkin says. "My music supervisor came up to me after the first run-through of Act 1, and he was, like, 'Oh my god, I didn't think I would say this, but it's better. It's clearer.' The close quarters of the tent was wonderful. And I think we have kept that quality while also giving space for moments to play across the audience and become more legible."
When "Great Comet" moved from the Ars Nova space to its Kazino incarnations, Malloy says the creative team feared losing the show's intimate quality with the venue more than doubling in size.
"If anything it just got more lush and extravagant and elegant and beautiful. So this just feels like another step up from that." Besides, Malloy adds, with a laugh, "It's 'War and Peace.' It's an epic. So getting bigger actually makes a lot of sense."
The cast size has been bumped up from 16 to 24, including a roving group of musician-singers playing accordion, clarinet, violin, and viola. The orchestra has also grown and is scattered across the stage. "There's more people to spread out," Malloy says. "So hopefully everyone will have some kind of one-on-one connection."
To foster that sense of intimacy, actors will pop up throughout the theater, and scenes will take place on several small platforms installed over portions of the permanent fixed seating area. Chavkin points to a boundary-breaking moment in the show when Natasha, after receiving a compliment, turns to an audience member in direct address and remarks, "I blush happily."
"I talk about these as 'Dear Diary' moments," Chavkin explains. "We want every audience member to have that experience because that's so closely linked to the experience of reading a novel."
The larger venue is also more taxing, both physically and mentally, on the performers. Lucas Steele, who's in his fourth go-round as Anatole, says the show has really pushed his skills as a performer.
"You need to be committed to your scene partner, to the action that you are playing, and to being hyperaware of what is going on around you, because you don't want to trip over somebody or knock a drink off a table. So your mind is really in five or six different places at once," Steele says.
It's also a great cardio workout, says Denée Benton, who plays Natasha. "We're just running and singing, hopping off of stairs and running up platforms. I really would like to wear a Fitbit at some point and see how many miles we run and calories are burned."
The idea for the show was sparked while Malloy was working as a piano player on a cruise ship. He had lots of free time, and his girlfriend was back on land. "So one of the things we decided to do to stay in touch was to read 'War and Peace' together, and then talk on the phone or e-mail about it while we were separated."
He immediately responded to a section of the novel that "had like the perfect structure of a musical," he relates. He was moved by the story of Natasha — a bold, lively girl whose obsession with the womanizing Anatole will lead to her downfall. Malloy also found himself drawn to the eccentric darkness of Pierre, "a merry feasting crank" whose heart has become frozen.
"I felt very much like a social misfit and outcast on the cruise ship. So I really related to Pierre in that way," says Malloy, whose previous works at the ART include "Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage," "Ghost Quartet," and "Three Pianos."
The musical really began to come to life in Malloy's mind during a trip he took to Russia. In Moscow, he and a friend stumbled into a crowded, smoke-filled tavern called Cafe Margarita, where a classical pops trio — piano, violin, and viola — were playing standards like "Flight of the Bumblebee" and "Für Elise." Vodka, dumplings, and handmade shakers were on every table. They downed shots with some locals and struck up a conversation with two American expats.
"It was an amazing night out and such an incredible environment to be in. As I was sitting there watching this all unfold, I was, like, oh, this is what 'Great Comet' should be. 'Great Comet' should be basically set in this bar."
At that point, he knew the show should be staged in a way that reflected that same vibe, as an immersive experience with the actors performing within a whisper of the audience.
Howard and Janet Kagan, who produced "Great Comet" in New York, are two of the supporters of the ART production. The dream, says Malloy, would be an eventual Broadway transfer.
"In a lot of ways, being in the Loeb is kind of our test run for that," Malloy says. "How do you transfer this show from a very intimate, 200-seat space into a 500- or 600-seat proscenium house? How do we adapt to that? What does that actually look like? So it's a great sandbox for us to play in."
Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812
Presented by American Repertory Theater.
At Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, Dec. 6-Jan. 3. Tickets: from $25. 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.