Reviews

The Great Comet of 1812 *****

Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812
                      By: David Sheward

It sounds like a recipe for disaster: a sung-through musical adaptation of a section of War and Peace employing a contemporary pop-rock vocabulary and preceded by a dinner service in a nightclub atmosphere. But this challenging immersive experience manages to capture the raw universal emotions of Tolstoy’s sweeping classic in an intimate setting. It’s as if each audience member is in the opera box next to naïve Natasha Rostov when she first catches a glimpse of the devastatingly handsome Anatole Kuragin or in the sweaty, vibrant club where cerebral Pierre Bezukhov challenges the arrogant Dolokhov to a duel.

Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812
                      By: David Sheward

It sounds like a recipe for disaster: a sung-through musical adaptation of a section of War and Peace employing a contemporary pop-rock vocabulary and preceded by a dinner service in a nightclub atmosphere. But this challenging immersive experience manages to capture the raw universal emotions of Tolstoy’s sweeping classic in an intimate setting. It’s as if each audience member is in the opera box next to naïve Natasha Rostov when she first catches a glimpse of the devastatingly handsome Anatole Kuragin or in the sweaty, vibrant club where cerebral Pierre Bezukhov challenges the arrogant Dolokhov to a duel.

After a limited run at Ars Nova, the production has transferred to a specially constructed tent site near the West Side Highway. Patrons are squeezed together at tables and receive a preshow traditional Russian meal complete with borscht and vodka shots. The action, staged with dexterity by Rachel Chavkin, unfolds all around the audience and focuses on a few chapters in the massive novel-specifically, those concerning Natasha’s aborted romance to the already-married scoundrel Anatole and the efforts of Pierre, Anatole’s brother-in-law, to save the young girl from ruin. Mimi Lein’s colorful set, Paloma Young’s period costumes, and especially Bradley King’s poetic lighting contribute to the authentic atmosphere.

Dave Malloy’s score and orchestrations run the gamut from pop to rock to country and western, all in the modern vein. One might not think 21st century sounds would be effective in telling a 19th century story, but they succeed in delineating the passions and urges of Tolstoy’s characters, making them as real and immediate as any found in a hit HBO series or current box-office blockbuster. The harsh backbeat behind the tense first meeting of Natasha and Mary, her fiancé Andrey’s sister, perfectly conveys their animosity. Helene, Pierre’s sluttish wife, is given a Beyoncé-like anthem to the joys of Moscow nightlife; while Sonya, Natasha’s devoted cousin, delivers a soulful, country ballad that one can imagine Taylor Swift crooning.

Malloy also plays Pierre; his sandpaper baritone and bearish demeanor are ideal for the awkward yet tenderhearted would-be philosopher. The magnificent Phillipa Soo passionately depicts Natasha’s conflicting desires, first sentimental attachment for Andrey who is off fighting Napoleon, then intoxication for the devilish Anatole, and finally crushing despair when both desert her. The final scene between Natasha and Pierre where the latter confesses his love for the former, is accompanied by a simple piano progression. Malloy and Soo give it an equally direct rendition and it left me sobbing. Kudos as well to Brittain Ashford’s moving Sonya, Amber Gray’s sassy Helene, Lucas Steele’s charismatic Anatole, Gelsey Bell’s appealing Mary, Blake Delong’s sensitive Andrey, and Grace McLean’s haughty Marya D., Natasha’s godmother.

Along with Here Lies Love and Murder Ballad, Natasha and Pierre is charting new territory in musical staging, and adventurous theatergoers will want to make the journey.
May 19, 2013

May 16-Sept. 1. Kazino, W. 13th and Washington sts., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm & 7pm. Two hours and 30 minutes, including intermission. $125-175 (including meal). (866) 811-4111. www.ovationtix.com
Photo By Ben Arons
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Originally Published on May 19, 2013 in ArtsinNY.com