Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Natasha, Pierre, and The Great Comet of 1812"

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note: entire contents copyright 2015 by Susan Daniels

"Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812"

A Review by Susan Daniels

  “Prologue,” the lively opening number in “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812,” running at American Repertory Theater through January 3rd, sets up high expectations.  Smile-inducing, visually arresting, captivating, and engagingly entertaining, the musical number achieves precisely what its title states: a rundown of the main characters extracted from a 70-page portion of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” while hinting at the plot lines in this very Russian tale.

Amidst chandeliers lighting up a transformed stage, the 360 degree performance space includes cabaret-style tables and chairs, bar stools, curved booths, catwalk-like tables jutting into the traditional seating area, and an orchestra pit claiming the center of this multi-leveled procession of activity, with the operatic sing-through embracing 19th century Russian culture -- both high and low.  Red drapes encompass the entire perimeter, with {what feels like} hundreds of paintings of Russian scenes and portraits hanging from them.

Coming into this thrilling setting are Natasha (Denee Benton), a naive country girl betrothed to a prince who is fighting in the Napoleonic War and her {more immediate} love interest, Anatole (Lucas Steele), a dashing, sexy scoundrel who could bring dishonor to Natasha’s family.  In the pivotal role, Pierre (Scott Stangland), a drunken cuckold, makes these twisty/turny tide of events all right by the end of the show.  While watching over the proceedings, he places himself in dramatic and humorous situations, often jumping into the orchestra pit to accompany himself on the piano.  Supporting the action -- which happens not only amongst the characters, but between performers and audience members too in this immersive production -- are a talented group of actors (24 in all) and musicians (10) who take up a musical instrument and/or take on the {mostly} expository dialogue with a verve and energy as pervasive as . . . well, war and peace.

With brilliant contributions by the collaborators -- Scenic Design by 2015 MacArthur “genius award” recipient Mimi Lien, Costumes by Paloma Young, Lighting by Bradley King, Sound by Matt Hubbs, Music Direction by Or Matias, Choreography by Sam Pinkleton -- Director Rachel Chavkin masters this huge undertaking, created by Dave Malloy (Book, Music, Lyrics, Orchestration).  

The individual components, however, are stronger than the whole.  Despite all the fanfare, the story, especially in the first act, feels detached . . . like it is missing its heart.  As a result, there is little emotional connection.  

Not until the second act when Brittain Ashford, as Natasha’s cousin Sonya, sings “Sonya Alone,” do I feel invested in a character.  Finally, there are notes of human complexity.  Accompanied only by piano, Ashford’s delivery is reminiscent of the 1960’s-1970’s folk scene -- not necessarily from the sound of this genre, but via its intention.   

Currently in its third incarnation, “The Great Comet of 1812” is heading to New York in September, with Josh Groban slated to make his Broadway debut as Pierre.  Hopefully, by then, the weaknesses of the story will have been addressed. 

Truly, this is a feast for the senses.  Like a magnificent meal, though, the first act deserves to be on par with the second.  As is, it is sumptuous, but lacking in substance.

"Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812" (till 3 January)
@ Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, CAMBRIDGE MA

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide