Winer is chief theater critic and arts columnist for Newsday, which she joined in 1987.
Ever since I read "Brave New World" in high school, I've been on a wary lookout for the rise of the "feelies." These are hyper-sensory entertainments about which Aldous Huxley indelibly warned me in his 1931 science-fiction utopian nightmare -- movie palaces where people programmed for dehumanized happiness are sent to experience controlled sights, smells and touches that simulate feelings.
Well, I've recently been to some of New York's new immersive theaters, surely the closest we've come to feelies -- theme-park bombardments with more tangible sensations than offered by the mere stories well told in conventional theaters.
And forgive me, Mr. Huxley, but I've been having a marvelous time.
Environmental theater has been around for decades, of course, at least since an '80s psychosexual mystery named "Tamara" had theatergoers running around a faux Art Deco mansion to follow a plot about early '20s fascism. But immersion came back in a big way two years ago with "Sleep No More," a site-specific extravaganza, loosely based on "Macbeth," still packing in the curious at a recreated 90-room "hotel" in an old warehouse in the far-west stretches of Chelsea.
So what's different now?
Musicals. Where "Sleep No More" and similar projects submerge people in plot, decor and aerobic dashing around, three new musicals also have gone immersive in conspicuous and delightful ways.
'NATASHA, PIERRE AND THE GREAT COMET OF 1812,' a huge hit last fall in Hell's Kitchen, has reopened its self-described "electropop" Tolstoy opera in an elaborate pop-up Russian supper club named Kazino in a tent near the Meatpacking District. (We sit at little tables, are served surprisingly OK Russian food and drinks before curtain and at intermission. Flexible necks are recommended for following the action.)
And what action it is, directed with an ambitious sense of fun by Rachel Chavkin. Dave Malloy, a big, furry guy who plays the disconsolate Pierre, is also the author, composer, lyricist and accordionist for the musically luscious, dramatic lark of a show. He has audaciously based the entire two-act extravaganza from just a short chunk of "War and Peace."
We are in Moscow, in the "peace" section of the novel, with red-velvet walls and starburst chandeliers and a terrific, sizable orchestra near the bar and in the corners. In startlingly clear speech-song, the 16 characters wearing gorgeous and hilarious meta-period costumes explain the people and the situation in a pulsing, charming exposition. Natasha (the sumptuously innocent-looking Phillipa Soo) is pining while Prince Andrey, her betrothed, is at war. She is seduced by the dashing rake Anatole (Lucas Steele, a dashing rake, indeed). Friends, relatives, Gypsies and opera stars throw themselves into the drama with a fervor that's both parody and sincerity. The music, which won this year's Richard Rodgers Award, is a pastiche of Russian folk, '60s pop and serious classicism.
Malloy has joked about staging the whole book into a 40-hour epic. If he promises not to have another long scene with dizzying strobe lights, I'll be there.
David Byrne and DJ-record producer Fatboy Slim, tells a sympathetic version of the Imelda Marcos story in a highly convincing pretend disco -- complete with disco ball -- upstairs at the Public Theater. (We stand throughout the 65-minute, 360-degree wraparound action. We move when performing platforms are moved around. If we are so disposed, we dance. We do not drink. Comfortable shoes are essential. Bags and coats must be checked.)
Byrne continues his singular, self-challenging career with his first musical, set in the sort of a dance club that the former first lady of the Philippines-- and shoe obsessive -- used to adore. Staged by Alex Timbers ("Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson"), the show takes place on elevated platforms that move with the 13 characters as they trace the life of Imelda (the indefatigably impressive Ruthie Ann Miles) from poor girl to spurned young woman and wife of the dictator (played by Jose Llana).
In his review, Newsday pop music critic Glenn Gamboa called the results "spectacular," and I'm with him. The score, based on Byrne's 2010 song cycle, is not always identifiable as Byrne, but the variety of sound serves the storytelling well. The title song sounds an awful lot like "Sweet Caroline," which is disconcerting. Otherwise, this is a true original.
"Here Lies Love," Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., $80.50-$95.50; 212-967-7555; publictheater.org
'MURDER BALLAD,' last winter's Manhattan Theatre Club smash set in a downtown dive bar, reopens Wednesday at what's promised to be an even more dramatically reconfigured Union Square Theatre. (We sit at cabaret tables that intersect the action. We drink. Great-looking performers brush by on their way to love, writhing sex and bloody revenge.)
Three of the four actors have transferred with the show. Karen Olivo, who apparently has retired from the stage, is replaced by Caissie Levy. She, Will Swenson, Rebecca Naomi Jones and John Ellison Conlee will prowl and growl around the young New York scene in competitive love stories that culminate, but not too soon, in a murder.
Julia Jordan, who has won both the Kleban and the Jonathan Larson awards for new musicals, created and wrote the lyrics for this music-theater-dance piece, with character-driven lyrics by pop songwriter Juliana Nash. It's a sultry 90-minute spree of a noir musical, a sung-through song cycle with short, abrupt, red-lit scenes about downtown lovers who break up. Catastrophe follows in the hesitations of big-beat rhythms.
I can't say whether today's site-specific theaters will prove to be more than feelies, more than gimmicks, more than an attempt to give audiences something they can't get in 3-D movies, instant entertainment and mass friending. In a sluggish season for Broadway musicals, however, it is good to feel something.
"Murder Ballad," Union Square Theatre, 100 E. 17th St., $79-$124; 800-745-3000; murderballad.com