Glasses are raised, the crowd shouts “nostrovia!” and the band plays as the crowd knocks back vodka or cava. Singers regale all with songs of young love, dancers dance the traditional dances of Russia, and everyone curses the vile Napoleon. No, it’s not 1812 Moscow, it’s Wednesday night at the Loeb Drama Center, currently hosting the next big thing in musical theater: Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. Diane Paulus (ART artistic director) and her team have a knack for choosing pieces that will go on to do great things. Their production of All the Way, featuring Bryan Cranston, comes to mind, and Comet is no exception. In it, theatergoers are treated not only to exciting music, dancing, and a segment of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, but also to a revolution in the staging of contemporary theater.
Composer Dave Malloy conceived of Comet in a Moscow nightclub, where musicians surrounded the patrons as they sipped vodka. The Loeb has been transformed into that nightclub. Upon entering the space, audience members are transported to 1810s Moscow, the stage has been restructured to make room for seating, and the actors and musicians weave this story around the seated audience, sometimes but a hair’s breadth away. This innovative staging is much more intimate than a production in the round. The audience is transported into the center of the action, becoming more than observers. They are close enough to perceive Natasha’s youthful naïveté as she enters the ball and becomes overwhelmed by the dashing Anatole, and, as the action draws to a close, only an arm’s length away during her crushing realization of what she has lost. Truly, Comet breathes fresh air into one of the great American art forms, and masterfully retells a beloved classic.
Composed of soaring arias inspired by great Russian operas, riotous dance numbers, simple folksongs, and pulsing electronics, Comet is a tasteful variety show—defined by its producers as electropop. Malloy blends sounds of the old world with tempos and instrumentation of the new, creating a pastiche at once familiar and exotic. It gives the evening an air of timelessness, and avoids becoming trite or derivative. The most striking example of this deftly navigated dichotomy comes in the first act, when Natasha (played and sung with exuberance by the bright-eyed and innocently charming Denée Benton) attends the opera. Her arrival makes manifest excitement and wonder manifest in the sweeping orchestration; both she and the score would fit perfectly in one of the grand MGM musicals of the 1930s and ’40s. As the scene shifts to the opera itself, the profound strangeness Natasha is feeling is demonstrated by the bizarre (and hilarious) diegetic show within a show, which could have easily come out of a theater piece by Yoko Ono. As Natasha loses her focus in the excitement, fluttering clarinets track her breath, rising and falling as her intoxication grows and her eyes open yet wider to the delights of society. Suddenly the music shifts, as the “ridiculously good-looking” Anatole Kuragin (Lucas Steele) sweeps into the room, the deep electronic bass begins to pulse as time slows and Natasha realizes she is the object of his gaze and desire. As he enters her opera box, the bass grows faster, her own pulse rising with the heat of the moment. Malloy shifts to a more electronic texture and the audience is swept up into the passion radiating from the pair, before the tension finally breaks as Anatole leaves the box. Then, as if nothing has happened, Malloy returns to the string texture from before Natasha sings a simple aria about her unsettled mind, leaving the electronic haze behind before returning to her senses. The music serves to both underscore and narrate the emotional state of the characters, bringing living depth to Tolstoy’s complex characters.
Malloy’s score was performed to perfection by the versatile young cast. Scott Stangland carries much of the evening. His Pierre is a sensitive philosopher, his voice expressive and warm at times, gravelly and growling at others. His heartstopping ballad Dust and Ashes may go down as one of the greatest musical theater moments in history. Apparently Josh Groban is slated to take over the role as it moves to Broadway; he has large shoes to fill. Brittain Ashford (Sonya) brought the audience to tears with her heartfelt Natasha Very Ill. Ashford is one of a handful of cast members who have been with the production since its inception, and it’s easy to see why. It would be hard to imagine the role sung without the benefit of her frank and truthful performance as Natasha’s closest friend. Her pain as she questions whether to intervene in Natasha’s affair with Anatole is solidly tangible, another moment when Malloy masterfully dramatizes Tolstoy’s characters. The entire cast is strong; indeed, when they perform together, as in the rousing 11:00 spot Balaga, it is easy to forget the troubles of the world, transported as we are by the exuberance of these fine musicians and actors. To quote the show: “Chandeliers and Caviar, the war can’t touch us here!”
MacArthur Genius Grant winner Mimi Lien deserves special praise for her scenic design. With panache she has transformed a proscenium stage into a nightclub, while accounting for sightlines from myriad angles and positions. In the final moment of the show, her design literally shines, as the lights hanging from the rafters surrounding the grand central chandelier ignite the sky, painting a shimmering backdrop for the most human moment of the evening, when Pierre consoles Natasha (also delivering the only line of spoken dialogue), then glowing as the titular comet passes over Pierre’s bewildered, enchanted head.
Director Rachel Chavkin also helped conceive and create the show, expertly adapting it as it has grown from a small Off Broadway space into a purpose-built tent and now to the stage at ART. She faces a new challenge ahead for the larger audiences of Broadway, but will undoubtedly handle it beautifully. In the Loeb, the action is sometimes literal, other times suggested. Chavkin wisely decides not to give Pierre a sleigh to climb into (where would it go?); instead the characters narrate action and emotion as a third person in their own story. The result is effective and eliminates the biggest problem of mounting Tolstoy for the stage. By verbalizing inner monologues, Malloy and Chavkin ensure that the private thoughts and feelings in the original are expressed.
To put it simply, the team behind Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 have created a contemporary masterpiece. The performances, the unique direction, the wonderful score and book: any one of these elements would make for a good show. Woven together, the result seems more vibrant than any new musical since the days of the classics. In its historic albeit currently threatened theaters, Boston has a history of putting the finishing touches on musicals that go on to greatness. At ART, Diane Paulus and her team are keeping this tradition alive. Comet is another smashing success, as anyone lucky enough to see it (through Sunday) will attest. And for those who can’t make this run, the new production in New York is slated to open this fall.
Garry McLinn is a Boston-area operatic tenor, blogger, and voice actor.