"Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812": Brilliant

Foreground: Lilli Cooper & Brittain Ashford; Center: Scott Stangland in "Great Comet of 1812"
(photo: Evgenia Eliseeva/American Repertory Theater)

Alchemy is afoot in ART's current production, the much-acclaimed “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812”. It transforms Tolstoy's iconic story of love and fate, “War and Peace”, into a living, breathing musical work. Based on Volume I, part five, fewer than seventy pages, it is reputedly word for word (with a few updated observations) from the 1922 translation by Aylmer and Louise Maude. It premiered in October 2012 at Ars Nova off-Broadway, then transferred as a pop-up in a tent called the “Kazino”, in the style of a speakeasy, in New York's theater district. It won the Obie Award for Best Musical, as well as three Lucille Lortel awards (with a record-breaking eleven nominations). At ART, gloriously transformed into a Russian style supper club (and more about this later), it continues its triumphant success. As wondrously helmed by Director Rachel Chavkin, with sublimely integrated Choreography by Sam Pinkleton, it's once again the mesmerizing tale of the Russian aristocracy, centered around Natasha's affair with Anatole, and with Pierre's ever-growing despair. One hesitates to use the “o” word lest potential patrons be scared off, but it is through-composed, thus indeed an opera, though an electropop one, with Russian folk, classical, indie rock and electronic dance music. Apart from one spoken line of dialogue near the end, all the lines are sung, many in the recitatif manner of more traditional operas. As a wondrous amalgam of musical styles, an integrated potpourri rather than a hodgepodge, this work offers something for everyone, at one and the same time creating spectacle and intimacy, opulence and poverty, reverence and irreverence, hypocrisy and innocence, the historic and the anachronistic.

There is no Comet of 1812 Overture, but a sung Prologue, which introduces the principal characters in a tongue-in-cheek homage to such cumulative songs as “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. As the play begins, Natasha (Denee Benton), engaged to Andrey (Nicholas Belton), who is away in the war, is urged by her cousin Sonya (Brittain Ashford) to visit Andrey's family, which consists of his spinster sister Mary (Gelsey Bell) and their crazy father Bolkonsky (also played by Belton). While that doesn't go well, things become more intriguing for Natasha when she's introduced, at the opera, by Helene (Lilli Cooper), who is married to Pierre (Scott Stangland), to the impossibly dashing (and, unbeknownst to her, infamous lady's man) Anatole (Lucas Steele). The first trace of electronic music begins at his entrance, electrifying the room. Complications ensue when she's seduced by Anatole. After a night of drinking with Pierre and their friend Dolokhov (Nick Choksi), culminating in a duel no less, Anatole convinces Natasha to elope in a troika driven by Balaga (Paul Pinto). This escape is thwarted by Natasha's godmother Marya D. (Grace McLean), who's aware that Anatole has secrets (namely, he's already married). Needless to say, all doesn't end well, at least on the surface. But there is Pierre's embracing of the wounded Natasha who finally smiles (hinting at their future relationship). And there's that titular comet, which transfixes Pierre in an epiphany.

Throughout the play, there is a pervading sense of love and respect for Tolstoy's novel, which he preferred to call a philosophical discourse. As Pierre wrestles with profound themes, we are reminded, as Chavkin has noted, of the partying aboard the sinking Titanic as we witness the divine decadence of it all. It has echoes of “Nicholas Nickleby” and “Hamilton” (no faint praise this), not just in its acutely accurate portrayal of society, but also in its immersive and enveloping non-stop energy and exuberance. There are occasional moments of audience involvement, never overdone, and meticulous attention to detail, such as Sonya's making of the sign of the cross in the Orthodox manner (“backwards”, as it were), Bolkonsky's constant tremor, the subtle integration of lighting and sound effects, and the distribution of authentic pelmeni (mashed-potato-filled dumplings) to the audience.

Tolstoy wrote that great events in history come as a result of many smaller events driven by thousands of individuals, not by so-called heroes. Thus it's entirely appropriate that this “Comet” is illuminated by an extraordinary ensemble. While they cheekily sing “everyone's got nine different names” and describe one character as “not too important”, the truth is that every member of the cast is integral and integrated. This is not to say that there aren't plenty of great moments created by the exquisite Benton, the passionate Stangland, the comically narcissistic Steele, the stalwart Ashford and the lascivious Cooper. Standouts are Benton's lovely “No One Else” and Cooper's lusty “Charming”, as well as Ashford's astonishingly well-acted “Sonya Alone”, and Stangland's incredibly touching “Dust and Ashes” (apparently added since the CD recording) and “The Great Comet of 1812”. There's not an instant when this cast isn't compelling. The same could be said for the creative elements, from the magnificent Music Direction by Or Matias and Music Supervision by Sonny Paladino, to the ingenious Costume Design by Paloma Young, to the intricately coordinated Lighting Design by Bradley King and Sound Design by Matt Hubbs. But, grand as all of these elements are, there are two fundamental keys to this show's success: the multifaceted contributions by Dave Malloy, who created the Music, Lyrics, and Libretto, as well as, crucially, the awe-inspiring Orchestrations; and the literally breathtaking Set Design by Mimi Lien.

Malloy is extraordinary. In his entire libretto, there is but one spoken line, in Pierre's final scene with Natasha, when he declares: “If I were not myself, but the brightest, handsomest, best man on earth, and if I were free, I would get down on my knees this minute and ask you for your hand and for your love”. Otherwise, it's a fascinatingly complex concoction of styles, including some rather arcane musical elements, such as “hocketing”, a vocal technique wherein singers “stack” their voices in patterns that evoke the pulsing of organ stops, defined as “a medieval musical composition in which two or three voice parts are given notes or short phrases in rapid alteration producing an erratic hiccuping effect”. If that sounds too lofty, not to worry. The score is so seamless you need only sit back and let it flow over you.

Reflecting her background in architecture, Lien's magic begins even before you enter the overwhelming red velvet supper club with its distressed deterioration. The audience first must pass through passageways that intentionally evoke Frank Lloyd Wright's use of small entries leading to stupendously impressive large venues. As Lien states, after walking through what's intended to evoke an abandoned 1980's concrete bunker, you enter a rapturously decorated room with hundreds of frames containing paintings, mirrors, and even a few pictures of Napoleon (reflecting the fact that he had first been an ally of Alexander I, but this is five years into the Tsar's reign, after they'd fallen out). Complete with chandeliers that are intentionally identical to those found in Lincoln Center, the set is a visual masterpiece.

Despite this embarrassment of riches, with emotions often expressed through visual and musical imagery, one leaves wishing there was more about Pierre's own passions and spiritual struggles to become a better person and his notion of the “elusive nature of earthly happiness”. Thus it comes as great news that Pierre's role had been expanded prior to the announced Broadway opening next fall (no surprise here), with Josh Groban in the role, no less. This show is, in short, a stellar spectacular, enlightening in every sense of the word. Score it as a ten out of ten for the show (but only one for the pelmeni). But don't wait for it. This is one speakeasy that won't be a secret for long, so you'd be well advised to procure tickets ASAP. Just tell them Tolstoy sent you. And he does, he does.

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