A.R.T’s “Great Comet of 1812” Soars (5 Stars)

‘Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812’ – Book, Music and Lyrics by Dave Malloy; Direction by Rachel Chavkin; Choreography by Sam Pinkleton; Music Direction by Or Matias; Music Supervision by Sonny Paladino. Presented by American Repertory Theater at the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St., Cambridge through January 3rd.

When one thinks of all the ways to describe Tolstoy’s epic novel “War and Peace”, the words “exhilarating”, “dazzling” and (especially) “fun” are not the first ones that spring to mind. That may soon change when “Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812” attains the broader audience that it so richly deserves when it completes its A.R.T. run and heads to Broadway in the fall (with Josh Groban starring as Pierre). Composer Dave Malloy has turned the 1,400 page novel (or at least a small portion of it) into two-and-a-half hours of mind-blowing theater that really is “exhilarating”, “dazzling” and loads of “fun”, as well as a whole host of other laudatory adjectives. Describing it may be a little difficult however, because it really isn’t like anything I’ve ever seen in a larger proscenium venue, and its book, music and lyrics certainly don’t conform to any standard theatrical forms.


The production, which debuted at the 80-seat Ars Nova space in New York in 2012, transforms the theater into (among other things) a Russian Nightclub/Opera House – complete with vodka shots ($6) being offered up to the patrons. As you enter the Loeb Center, it looks as if it’s under construction, with the walls of the theater lobbies boarded up with plywood and adorned with Russian rock ‘n roll posters and covered by plastic sheeting. Inside the theater, the actors mingle freely with the audience before the show begins, with some serving Vareniki, a tasty Russian dumpling, to patrons.


As for the production, we know we’re in for a completely different experience right from the opening “Prologue” – a rockin’ Klezmer-infused number that introduces the primary characters in a way similar to the “12 Days of Christmas” – combined with a number of hilarious asides tossed in for good measure. So in addition to a one line description of each character (repeated after each new one is introduced), we get lyrics like, “This is a Russian novel/Everyone’s got nine different names/So look it up in your program/We appreciate it, thanks a lot!/DaDaDuh, DaDaDuh, DaDaDuh!” This number might have Tolstoy spinning in his grave, but he may also be smiling and tapping his foot.


The complex plot is not as difficult to follow as one might imagine, and boils down to this: Young, beautiful Natasha (the radiant Denee Benton) is engaged to Andrey (Nicholas Belton), who has gone off to fight in the war. She goes to Moscow with her cousin and best friend Sonya to visit her aunt Mary who implores her to meet with Andrey’s family to gain approval, which doesn’t go well. Andrey’s father (also played by Belton) is elderly and demented (but provides the evening’s most disturbingly funny number) and his sister takes an immediate dislike to Natasha. Later that evening, Mary takes Natasha and Sonya to the Moscow Opera, where Natasha meets Anatole (Lucas Steele), a self-absorbed cad whose hobbies are women, wine and song (in that order). He is also gifted with Boy Band good looks, which prompts one character to say (sing) of him, “He walked with a swagger that would have been ridiculous if he weren’t so good-looking”. Of course, he and Natasha fall for each other, and the drama begins. In the meantime, Pierre (Scott Stangland), Anatole’s brother-in-law, is drowning in existential angst (not to mention large amounts of wine and vodka) and is searching for meaning to his seemingly pointless life.


All of this is sung-through, and the show is incredibly imaginative in its presentation. The music runs the gamut from classical arias to folk, rock, and house music, and the lyrics to the songs are composed mostly of internal monologues and asides. Few of the songs follow the traditional verse-chorus-verse structure, but instead are made up of wildly disparate segments that fit together beautifully, particularly the love “ballads”. My favorite number of the evening (and the closest thing to a traditional song) is “Sonya Alone”, where Sonya (Brittain Ashford) offers support and love for her cousin, despite her childish decisions. Ashford’s unique voice and phrasing add a deeply haunting quality to the song, and I felt as if I were listening to a long lost undiscovered gem from a 1960’s folk singer.


Since there is no conventional stage (the musicians are stationed in Pierre’s home, which is sunken below the rest of the performing area in the center of where the stage would usually be) director Rachel Chavkin makes full use of the entire theater space, with the opera (and other sequences) performed on small stages where the seats have been removed, creating a truly immersive experience for theatergoers. The costuming mix is also fantastic, from early 19th century garb of the Russian aristocracy and military, to Russian Gypsy clothing to hipster gear – and even a little 80’s New Wave.


There’s not much point in trying to describe this production any further, other than to say that it really is brilliant. Reviewers often say it, but this is one time when we truly mean it: Don’t miss this show. For more info, go to: http://americanrepertorytheater.org/events/show/natasha-pierre-great-comet-1812