CAMBRIDGE — From the moment Natasha receives an illicit love letter until Pierre's concluding aria over a celestial wonder, "Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812" is a captivating experience — and occasionally a thrilling one. The trouble is, that letter arrives at the top of the second act. What comes before is a sometimes satisfying, sometimes frustrating glimpse of what this musical can — and eventually does — become.
Creator Dave Malloy bases the story of "Great Comet" on a 70-page bit of Tolstoy's "War and Peace." It concerns Natasha (Denée Benton), a country girl betrothed to a dashing prince off somewhere fighting Napoleon, and an ill-advised romantic dalliance with the rogue Anatole (Lucas Steele) that could wreck her engagement and ruin her family.
Even if its first act takes detours into narrative cul de sacs (like a showpiece featuring the decrepit old prince Bolkonsky, never to be heard from again), the whole business is still great fun from the beginning.
This is an immersive show, you see, and the audience experience is altered from first arrival at the American Repertory Theater's Loeb Drama Center, which is dressed to evoke an earlier incarnation of "Great Comet" in a tented pop-up venue in New York. A makeshift box office is set up in the entrance lobby, while the hallways inside are draped with plastic tarps, affecting the hasty grime of a site-specific show. Plywood boards are plastered with Russian-language advertisements.
The theater is transformed to evoke both high culture and boozy wantonness, with artworks in gilded frames crowding the red curtains covering the walls. The performance space is remade to accommodate seating in curved booths and on bar-style stools, spots for some of the musicians — ones playing instruments like cello and piano, which can't be easily carried — and areas for performers to move among audience members, including on platforms set up around the room.
"Great Comet," which is heading to Broadway next year, is billed as an "electropop opera," a description that does few favors to Malloy's accomplished score. In fact, there's little I'd describe as pop music. Malloy's music here is founded on Eastern European folk styles with lush classical gestures and, for much of the show, an electronic backbeat.
While an expository prologue is welcome ("This is a complicated Russian novel. . . . You're going to have to study up a little bit if you want to keep up with the plot," we're advised), Malloy makes the problematic choice of having his characters sing in a mix of first and third person. Though he says this is meant to embrace Tolstoy's voice, too often it has a distancing effect. When Scott Stangland's Pierre sings "Pierre paces the room several times in silence," or when Natasha sings "I began to cry," we fairly scream out for the dramatic corollaries that would better convey these moments.
The first act essentially adds up to an hour-plus of exposition, ground that could be covered more efficiently. But things are in place for the second act, kicking off with "Letters," a full-company number in which Natasha and Anatole pledge their love, which has one of the catchiest hooks of the show. Everything hurtles forward winningly from there.
Accompanied only by piano, with a vocal delivery that recalls 1970s-vintage singer-songwriters, Brittain Ashford (as Natasha's cousin Sonya) delivers the performance of the evening with "Sonya Alone," singing of her attempt to intervene in Natasha's ill-planned adventure. It's one of the many moments when Malloy and director Rachel Chavkin display a mastery of dynamics. They blow the doors down with the riotous folk dance "Balaga" (the choreography is by Sam Pinkleton), which sees much of the company pick up instruments and move all over the space. And they achieve just as much emotional potency working a few moments of silence into Pierre's climactic number "The Great Comet of 1812."
Stangland is immensely likable as Pierre, the drunken cuckold who's given a chance to redeem his dissolute ways by saving the day. Benton and Steele, too, are convincing in their portrayal of two characters caught up in a tumultuous affair.
Paloma Young's sumptuous costume design gleefully mashes up military-style coats, leather vests, fishnets, crop tops, and paint-splattered denim. The orchestra, led by Or Matias, is fantastic, and Chavkin creates an uncountable catalog of gorgeous stage pictures — or "stage" pictures, as the beautiful mise-en-scenes are just as likely to be rendered in the aisle right by your seat.
This show ambles a bit before catching its stride, but then it dashes home with confidence.
NATASHA, PIERRE & THE GREAT COMET OF 1812
Musical with book, music, and lyrics by Dave Malloy. Adapted from "War and Peace" by Leo Tolstoy. Directed by Rachel Chavkin. Presented by American Repertory Theater. At Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge. Tickets: 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.com