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Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Chandeliers and Caviar: Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812

Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, by Dave Malloy, adapted from War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. Directed by Rachel Chavkin. Starring Phillipa Soo and Dave Malloy. Currently running at Kazino through September 1st, 2013. Previously ran at Ars Nova in 2012.

Lucas Steele as Anatole
You are seated at a small round table in a club lined with plush red curtains, adorned with 19th century paintings (including the famous Napoleon portrait). The tables are scattered across the long space, some on the ground level, some up small sets of stairs, lining the walls. The tables are crowded with food - fruit, crudites, small pastries, shots of borscht, as Dmitri (or a similarly Russian-named and -accented waitstaff) takes your drink order. Techno music plays as you observe the starburst-shaped chandeliers and naked bulbs hanging down, and Royce the House Manager makes his rounds, swatting playfully at the waitstaff, saying hello, and being the first to ask you to turn off your cell phone (he will not be the last). Dmitri brings you your second course as you anxiously wait for the show to start. You've skimmed through your program, where there is a helpful summary and character chart, but you're still trepidatious. You never read War and Peace, but you strongly suspect it is Russian, which means it is complicated, depressing, and full of characters with at least three different names apiece.

But the atmosphere is festive, and some of the ensemble have begun to mingle, and perhaps this will not be as dark as all that.



And indeed, it is not. With a burst of fanfare, the cast arrives, some sporting musical instruments, singing raucously to the audience as they mince around the tables that this is 19th Century Russia and it's all very complicated, but all you need to know is "Anatole is hot, Marya is old-school, Sonya is good, Natasha is young, and Andrey isn't here." What follows is perhaps the most joyous ride anyone ever took through a Tolstoy novel.

And as they take us through the story, it doesn't matter if you, like I, are completely unfamiliar with the novel. Not only is the narration clear, but the characters are all played with such honesty and commitment by the uniformally talented cast, and (mercifully) the sound is mixed such that you can hear and understand every word (thank you, Matt Hubbs - I recognize this was no mean feat in a venue of this nature). So we follow Natasha and her cousin Sonya to stay with godmother Marya in Moscow where, though engaged to Andrey, Natasha is soon smitten with secretly-married gigolo Anatole. He schemes, with the help of his equally married and equally promiscuous sister Helene, to seduce Natasha into an elopement, despite the objections of Helene's husband Pierre, a disillusioned and lethargic intellectual.

This is 19th Century Russia, there's a war on, and of course none of this will end well. This tale should be loaded with misery, and indeed the misery is there, heavy in some of the characters, but neither author Dave Malloy nor director Rachel Chavkin allows any of us to linger in the melancholy. The story may be unhappy, but the only word to describe the storytelling is joyous. Natasha's glowing optimism, as played by the pure-voiced Phillipa Soo, carries us through her unwise choices, and for the more melancholy characters, Gelsey Bell's dour Mary, Blake Delong's decrepit Bolkonsky, or Brittain Ashford's bassoon-voiced and stoic Sonya, humor is often held either in the characters themselves, or in the storytellers around them. The war is through those doors there, but here in Moscow, we relax and celebrate at our leisure!

Phillipa Soo as Natasha
Bradley King's lighting design, consisting of the starburst chandeliers, naked bulbs, and more covert conventional theatrical lamps, helps to smoothly focus the narrative of the story, as the cast is spread across the entirety of Mimi Lien's set, in and around the audience. The lights frame the space and help equally to craft moments of despair, of joy, a quiet lonely room or the grand opera house. They reach their climax in the final moment when Pierre sees the titular great comet soaring overhead - the lights all dim out except for the naked bulbs, shining quietly as stars, and one of the chandeliers glows brightly, brighter, brighter still, a consuming and hopeful light to guide Pierre beyond the despair he has just left.

Last week in my review of Murder Ballad, I highlighted the flaws in the genre of Pop Opera, how the idiom of the Pop Song limits the ability to tell story in favor of luxuriating in an emotion. What's interesting about the score for Comet, which is also a Pop Opera, is that the emphasis is more on the Opera than the Pop - so while we're working in a modern musical idiom, the lyrics of the songs travel closer to dialogue, monologue, and narration, rather than traditional song shapes. And the music, while with a contemporary sensibility, is varied enough that you don't feel drowned in a musical soup - it's dynamic and engaging, with sophisticated moves like the awkward half-step harmonies of Mary and Natasha in ""Natasha & Bolkonskys," musicalizing the characters' inability to communicate comfortably.

It may seem strange to hear how people came out of an adaptation of War and Peace with smiles on their faces, delighted and sated, but that is the astonishing achievement of Malloy and Chavkin, and indeed the entire design team and cast. If you've got the time this summer, Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 is the show to see.

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