Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Boston

Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812
American Repertory Theater
Review by Nancy Grossman


Cast
Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva
Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812 erupts like a supernova, its brightness and energy lighting up the Loeb Drama Center at American Repertory Theater like the fireworks display at the end of the Fourth of July concert on the Esplanade. The electrifying new musical adaptation based on a 70-page segment of Leo Tolstoy's "War and Peace" is a fusillade of stimuli encompassing the entirety of the theater, immersing the audience into the opulent world of the play in 19th century Moscow. Leave your apprehensions at home as ignorance of Tolstoy's tome is no barrier to comprehension or enjoyment; Dave Malloy's book and libretto extract the heart of the story, making it both accessible and contemporary, and director Rachel Chavkin's thrilling staging offers a non-stop sensory feast.

The piece, which premiered Off-Broadway in 2012, has been reimagined and expanded for its Cambridge iteration (and future Broadway production in September, 2016, starring Josh Groban), eliminating the ART's proscenium arch for its 360-degree design concept by set designer Mimi Lien that puts the audience in the middle of the action. Many of the seats are interspersed with the stage (which is actually built over the lower portion of the orchestra section), with patrons at tables or banquettes where they may interact with the characters. The upper orchestra seating is mostly intact, but even there, between some of the seats, there are small café tables with lamps and rectangular platforms where actors pop up throughout the play. The ten musicians are spaced throughout the set and you may find yourself face-to-face with a guitarist or accordion player as they meander around the floor.

The set decoration, lighting design (Bradley King), and costume design (Paloma Young) are also spectacular. The walls are draped with rich folds of red velvet, adorned with 400 paintings hanging in vertical rows. A full-length portrait of Napoleon looms from a place of prominence, reminding us that ... The Great Comet ... occurs during the Emperor's war just prior to his invasion of Russia and the burning of Moscow. Overhead, several large planet-like fixtures are surrounded by dozens of dangling light bulbs which dim or brighten as the scenes move between a residence, a club, or the opera, or to reflect the night sky. When an upstage metal door opens for an exit or entrance, a massive bank of bright white lights sends its blinding beam through clouds of stage fog to create an eerie effect, and spotlights are used to heighten the focus on actors in their solo numbers. The costumes feature a dazzling array of colors, fabrics and textures, and the designs suggest both the character's status and personality.

Malloy uses an eclectic combination of musical styles in what is labeled an electro-pop opera, basically sung-through by ten main characters and an ensemble of fourteen. The energetic opening number ("Prologue") clearly and cleverly outlines who's who, and twice makes reference to the fact that the information is in your program (a helpful "Family Tree" diagram). At the outset, Pierre (Scott Stangland) is an aristocrat suffering from an existential crisis when his friend Andrey (Nicholas Belton) goes off to war, leaving behind his fiancée Natasha (Denée Benton). While wintering in Moscow at her godmother Marya D.'s (Grace McLean) with her cousin Sonya (Brittain Ashford), Natasha meets Andrey's father (Belton) and sister Mary (Gelsey Bell), but it does not go well. The next night she attends the opera where she meets Anatole (Lucas Steele), a notorious rogue, and they are smitten with each other. As their connection deepens and Natasha is drawn to Anatole, she rejects Andrey, causing great consternation for her family who fear her ruin, as well as the loss of status and fortune for themselves. As an old family friend and Anatole's brother-in-law, Pierre is called in to help handle the crisis. Much drama ensues and, although no one is truly happy in the end, nobody dies and Pierre experiences a metaphysical transformation.

The staging allows both an immersive and intimate experience in the absence of a fourth wall. The actors mingle with the audience and it increases our opportunity to appreciate how skillfully they inhabit their characters. Each of the principals gives an outstanding performance, equally impressive in their acting and singing while maintaining the stamina the show requires of them. Benton is believable in every aspect of Natasha's journey, from sparkly, lovestruck innocent to world-weary woman, and achingly delivers her arias. Ashford shows her cousin's devotion, and her aria ("Sonya Alone") is lovely in its heartfelt determination. Steele's swagger telegraphs who Anatole is and his rock star voice is a perfect fit for the character. Stangland lets us feel Pierre's angst without overshadowing his innate goodness and beautifully conveys the hopeful message of the final song ("The Great Comet of 1812").

Also worthy of mention are Nick Choksi as Anatole's friend Dolokhov, Lilli Cooper as Pierre's serpent of a wife, and Anatole's sister Hélène, Paul Pinto as Balaga, the troika driver, and Belton's double duty as handsome, young Andrey and his palsied, crude father Bolkonsky. Bell elicits sympathy for Mary, and McLean shows Marya as a force to be reckoned with. The ensemble members bring Sam Pinkleton's vibrant choreography to life and are an excellent vocal chorus. Sound designer Matt Hubbs effectively achieves "surround sound" as the actors and musicians are clearly heard wherever they happen to be positioned, and music director Or Matias plays piano and conducts from the middle of the action.

Malloy, Chavkin, and their team of designers have created something very special, virtually transforming the Loeb Drama Center to another place and another time, while the music and the cast provide the magic to transport the audience to that destination. Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812 is an incredible artistic achievement that fulfills its promise for an entertaining evening at the theater. Fasten your seat belt and prepare to love it to the moon and back.

Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812, performances through January 3, 2016, at American Repertory Theater, Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA; Box Office 617-547-8300 or www.americanrepertorytheater.org.

Book, Music, and Lyrics by Dave Malloy, Adapted from War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Direction by Rachel Chavkin, Choreography by Sam Pinkleton; Scenic Design, Mimi Lien; Costume Design, Paloma Young; Lighting Design, Bradley King; Sound Design, Matt Hubbs; Wig & Makeup Design, Rachel Padula Shufelt; Orchestrations, Dave Malloy; Music Supervision, Sonny Paladino; Music Direction, Or Matias; Production Stage Manager, Karyn Meek

Cast (in alphabetical order): Brittain Ashford, Gelsey Bell, Nicholas Belton, Denée Benton, Nick Choksi, Lilli Cooper, Grace McLean, Paul Pinto, Scott Stangland, Lucas Steele; Ensemble: Sumayya Ali, Courtney Bassett, Josh Canfield, Ken Clark, Erica Dorfler, Daniel Emond, Lulu Fall, Ashley Pérez Flanagan, Nick Gaswirth, Azudi Onyejekwe, Pearl Rhein, Heath Saunders, Katrina Yaukey, Lauren Zakrin


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