Stage Door Review 2024

Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812

Tuesday, January 9, 2024


book, music & lyrics by Dave Molloy, directed by Chris Abraham

Crow’s Theatre & The Musical Stage Company, Streetcar Crowsnest, Toronto

December 13, 2023-March 24, 2024

Pierre: “It seemed to Pierre that this comet fully responded to what was passing in his own softened and uplifted soul”

Presented by Crow’s Theatre and The Musical Stage Company, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 is a triumph. The companies give the 2012 musical a fantastic production which simply could not be bettered, in which its leads give career-best performances. Dave Molloy, creator of the work’s music, book and lyrics, takes risk after risk, but they all pay off and make the work feel completely fresh and new, much more of more an experience than merely a stage show.

The first risk Molloy takes in The Great Comet (as it is known for short) is its subject matter. It uses no less a source than Tolstoy’s mammoth novel War and Peace (1867). Tolstoy examines life in Russian from Napoleon’s defeat of the Russo-Austrian army at Austerlitz in 1805 to his invasion of Russia in 1812 and his arrival in Moscow to his defeat and its aftermath. Against this background the novel tells the stories of five families, although to paint the widest possible portrait of the period the novel features more than 580 characters from the lowliest beggar to Napoleon himself.

The approach of composer Sergei Prokofiev in his great opera War and Peace (1955) was to represent the novel by portraying thirteen key scenes. He focusses on the novel’s central characters – Natasha, Pierre, Andrey and Anatole – but he frames the scenes of personal passion and suffering with scenes of the progress of the war, with Napoleon as a character and a chorus representing the Russian people.

Molloy’s approach is completely different. Tolstoy’s novel is divided into 15 “books” and two epilogues. Molloy confines himself to dramatizing only Book 8 of the novel and no more. This book concerns the novel’s four main characters and presents a turning point in the life of each of them. The action takes place in Moscow from 1811 to early 1812 when the front lines of the war were still outside of Russia. Tolstoy is interested in portraying how the populace almost absurdly continues with life with no notion that as early as June of 1812 Napoleon will cross the Russian border.

The musical like the novel presents us with two contrasting characters. One is the world-weary intellectual Pierre, married to the promiscuous and flighty Hélène. The other is the naïve emotional Natasha who is engaged to Andrey, a friend of Pierre’s. Her father (not in the musical) has taken her and her best friend Sonya, to Moscow to order her trousseau. The two girls stay with their Natasha’s father’s old friend, the strict Marya Dmitriyevna, who is to help Natasha plan for the wedding and to help her get along with Andrey’s father, Prince Polkowski and sister Mary.

All plans are upset when Natasha goes to the opera and sees the dashing but irresponsible Prince Anatole Kuragin, Hélène’s brother. He is instantly attracted to her and she intrigued by him. Hélène arranges a party where the two can meet. There Anatole tells Natasha he is madly in love with her. This causes Natasha to doubt her love for Andrey and soon she agrees to elope with Anatole, who has hidden from her that he is already married.

One might think that by choosing to treat only life in Moscow Molloy, unlike Prokofiev, does not deal with the theme of war. Yet, though his libretto never takes us to the front and mentions Napoleon only once, war should constantly be in our minds since Molloy reminds us so often that Natasha’s fiancé is away because he is fighting. Indeed, it is because Andrey is away that Natasha is tempted by Anatole. In one of the many ironic parallels in the novel we should see that as Napoleon wages war to conquer Europe, in the supposed safety of the peace in Moscow, rogues like Anatole wage their own kind of war of conquest.

Molloy’s musical is complete sung-through with only one line of spoken dialogue, leading him to call The Great Comet “ an electropop opera”. Molloy’s main innovation is in choosing electronic dance music (EDM) as his primary style. Also, unlike most musicals, Molloy’s libretto is in prose, not verse. There are repetitions but no rhymes. In fact, music of the libretto is taken verbatim from the outmoded 1923 translation by Aylmer and Louise Maude. One need only compare Pierre moving final song to the final paragraph of Book 8 to see how miraculously Molloy’s music has elevated the Maudes’ prose.

Like Lin-Manuel Miranda’s later use of hip-hop in Hamilton (2015), Molloy’s use of EDM immediately sets up an often comic distance between the words of his source material and their setting. Molloy clearly wants us to be aware that we are looking at the famed 19th-century work from the point of view of the present. Nevertheless, Molloy’s always exciting music does stray from EDM into imitation Russian folk music, minimalism and traditional classical music.

Just as Molloy’s creates a distance between the past and present, Molloy uses his own passages, those not taken directly from the novel, in serving up a comic satire of the audience. The payoff of this risk is the creation of a distance between the audience and the musical. The Prologue deliberately introduces the characters in the most superficial way possible: “Anatole is hot / Marya is old-school / Sonya is good / Natasha is young / And Andrey isn’t here”. This is a satire of the common notion that Russian novels, especially War and Peace, are heavy and difficult and suggests that the audience needs a simplistic, student-like way of keeping the characters straight. As the Prologue says, “Gonna have to study up a little bit / If you wanna keep with the plot / ’Cause it’s a complicated Russian novel”.

Act 2 begins with another satirical song that states, “In nineteenth-century Russia, we write letters / We write letters / We put down in writing / What is happening in our minds”. This satire cut two ways – one makes fun of how important letters are as plot devices in 19th-century novels, the other treats the modern audience as if they are so given to texting and e-mails that they have forgotten how people communicated in the previous thousand years or so.

Act 2 also includes a huge production number devoted to the minor character Balaga, the troika-driver chosen to whisk Anatole and Natasha away from Moscow. The celebration of Balaga includes singing and dancing in which the audience is encouraged to take part. The audience, of course, gleefully joins in the fun, most without realizing that they are the real subject of Molloy’s satire. What on earth should everyone on stage plus everyone in the audience celebrate the person who is going to aid the scoundrel Anatole in abducting the innocent Natasha? Earlier we may have wondered how Natasha could not see the cold seducer beneath Anatole’s handsome, charming façade. Yet now, with faux-Russian folk music and onstage merriment, Molloy seduces us into cheering on the man who will enable Anatole’s crime.

Scenes like these are just part of a whole array of techniques that Molloy uses in Brechtian fashion to alienate the audience from the action and to be aware always of the artifice of the theatre. To that end Molloy sometimes has various performers serve as narrator and often has characters narrate their own actions in the third person. While the show does have a dedicated five-member band, nearly all the performers also play instruments to accompany the songs. From the very start when the combined cast sings directly to us there really is no fourth wall. This is reinforced when some performers mingle with the audience and even invite them on stage.

Yet, despite all of Molloy’s effort to make us aware of the work as a construct and view the performances as performances, the acting and singing of the cast are so good that we are still drawn into the story. This conforms perfectly with the atmosphere Tolstoy conjures up in Moscow before Napoleon’s invasion. In the novel the main characters have a sense of the unreality of all they do because at some level the war makes them realize against their will that their present frivolous way of life and all they know will soon vanish. The Great Comet of 1812, which had been part of the night sky in the Northern Hemisphere since March 25, 1811, was widely regarded as a portent of Napoleon eventual invasion of Russia. Pierre may be the only character to comment on it, but it, just like the war, is always present in the background.

The current production of The Great Comet elicits best-ever performances from several of the cast. Most notable are Evan Buliung, Hallie Gillis and George Krissa, who have never had such complex roles and who fully rise to their demands. Buliung is phenomenal. His voice has never sounded stronger and he uses it to bring the nuances out of every line. The Prologue types Pierre as “bewildered and awkward”, but Buliung shows that Pierre is much more complex. Buliung gives a man who reads widely in hopes of finding the meaning that life once had but who sinks more deeply into depression. At the same time, he observes his sorry state but does nothing to change it. Buliung captures Pierre’s harsh assessment of himself in the great song “Dust and Ashes” where he sings “Is this how I die? / Ridiculed and laughed at / Wearing clown shoes”. Yet, when needed Pierre performs one good deed, and the positive effect of that deed lifts him up. Buliung beautifully brings that moment to life when Pierre sees the Great Comet and, rather than seeing a portent of doom, sees hope.

Parallel but opposite to Pierre is Natasha. Just as Pierre moves from despair to hope, Natasha moves from naïveté to anguish. Just as Buliung minutely traces Pierre emotional arc, so Hailey Gillis minutely traces Natasha’s. Natasha is in an emotionally heightened state through the musical. In her lovely full voice Hailey sings of her love for the absent Andrey in “No One Else” inspired by the moon much as Pierre at the very end will be inspired by the comet. Gillis shows that Natasha has a satirical side when we hear her negative comments about Prince Bolkonsky and his daughter and about the opera. Yet, all this critical judgement Natasha throws away as soon as she sees Anatole. As Anatole notches up his seduction, Gillis demonstrates how Natasha becomes progressively more overwrought. We can see that Natasha is carried away from reality as much by her emotion as Pierre is by his intellect. Gillis makes Natasha’s descent into self-delusion so palpable she has us on the edge of our seats.

George Krissa is immensely comfortable and confident in the role of Anatole. Theatre-goers will remember Krissa most as Rocky, the bare-chested hunk in short shorts in The Rocky Horror Show at Stratford in 2018. In The Great Comet Krissa is every bit as dashing and handsome as the character is said to be and has far more to do. Anatole is a seducer all too aware of his charms and their effect, and Krissa wrings much comedy from this villain’s preening and narcissism. Krissa has a powerful high tenor with seemingly unlimited lung-power and a strong falsetto so that he brings off every one of his numbers with panache. Importantly, when Krissa plays Anatole playing serious with Natasha, he is so convincing that on occasion even we wonder whether Anatole is finally feeling love for a woman rather than lust.

Among the cast members who are relegated just one big song, Camille Eanga-Selenge is a treasure as Sonya. Eanga-Selenge well depicts Sonya’s increasing worry about Natasha’s affair with Anatole, and when Sonya has the chance to save her friend she does so after a difficult inner struggle. With her strong, soaring voice Eanga-Selenge persuasivelypresents this heart-wrenching struggle in the song “Sonya Alone” where she vows to protect Natasha even if Natasha does not realize she need protection.

In other roles, Divine Brown turns Hélène’s big number “Charming” into a delightfully wicked portrayal of a worldly woman so dissolute she that she revels in Natasha’s innocence knowing that her brother will destroy it. Louise Pitre plays Marya as “old-school” as the Prologue labels her but when the time comes for her to act, her Marya is full of more force and fury than we ever expected. Heeyun Park gives a touching portrait of the unhappy, imprisoned Mary, while Marcus Nance is suitably frightening as Prince Bolkonsky, Mary’s demented, domineering father, and as Bolkonsky’s son and Natasha’s fiancé Andrey. Nance, wielding his huge bass voice, reveals in Andrey the same uncompromising nature as Bolkonsky.

Julie Fox and Joshua Quinlan have outdone themselves in creating the sets. The original productions in New York were immersive and to capture that sensibility, the designers have imagined a central square dais where all the principal action takes place surrounded on three sides by the audience. The secret feature of the dais is that it rotates. The designers seat those in the front rows at cocktail tables that give the show the feel of a cabaret. Above, an elegantly ornamented balcony with two staircases runs along three sides. Here in full view is where the five members of the band sit. Over all, hangs an enormous chandelier through which Kimberley Purtell shines lights spreading sparkles on everyone.

Director Chris Abraham uses this set to full effect by having member of the cast turn the dais while a scene is being played on it. Characters caught up in an emotional whirl thus literally whirl before us. To enhance the show’s immersiveness, Abraham has the actors and musicians play not only from the central dais but from the balcony, the stairs and all of the aisles. With this show Abraham proves that he is as much a master at directing this “electropop opera” as he is at directing plays.

The Great Comet is deservedly popular. It has already been held over twice and indeed could probably have had an open run since many people who have seen will likely want to see it again. This is a show and production that no lover of music theatre or of theatre in general should miss. Just as Pierre feels he has seen a new life open up at the end of the action so by the end of the show we feel we have seen a new type of musical – one that has broken so many conventions of its genre, has succeeded and created a work that is all the more exciting and energizing for its daring.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: George Krissa as Anatole and Hailey Gillis as Natasha; overview of the set for The Great Comet by Julie Fox and Joshua Quinlan; Evan Buliung as Pierre; Marcus Nance as Andrey. © 2023 Dahlia Katz.

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