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Paulanne Simmons

“Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812” Creates Fireworks


"Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812"
Directed by Rachel Chavkin
Ars Nova
511 West 54 Street
From Oct.1, 2012
Tues. thru Sat. at 8pm
Tickets: $30 (212) 352-3101 or www.arsnovanyc.com
Closing Nov. 10, 2012
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons Oct. 11, 2012


"Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812"-- L-R: Amelia Workman, Lucas Steele, Amber Gray, Phillipa Soo, Gelsey Bell, Dave Malloy (far right).

Those who are not yet convinced Ars Nova is dedicated to producing innovative and exciting theater need only see the theater’s newest production “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812” to dispel any doubts. Adopted from a section of Tolstoy’s War and Peace by Ars Nova 2011 composer-in-residence Dave Malloy and directed by Rachel Chavkin (the team behind the Obie-award winning “Three Pianos”), the show is a tongue-in-cheek electro-pop opera set in Russia on the eve of Napoleon’s invasion of Moscow.

The opera is not only set in Moscow, the entire theater is transformed into a Moscow dining club, complete with tables set with vodka, black bread, dumplings and sour cream. Who needs Brighton Beach?

The conceit is that the singers are not singing verses written for music, but rather a narrative that is ponderous and repetitive, sort of like a long, long Russian novel. What’s more there’s a show-within-a-show, when some of the characters actually go to an opera. Anyone who has ever read Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin will recognize the technique of the writer commenting on the writing, known in academic circles as metafiction.

Phillipa Soo as "Natasha" and Lucas Steele as "Anatole" in "Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812."

The story revolves around Natasha (Phillipa Soo), a beautiful young lady who falls under the spell of a charming rogue, Anatole (Lucas Stele) while staying in Moscow with her godmother, Marya D. (Amelia Workman), awaiting her fiancée’s return from the front lines. All this happens under the watchful eye of the aristocratic Pierre (Dave Malloy), a somewhat dissolute and cynical family friend. Other characters include Natasha’s cousin, Sonya (Brittain Ashford) , who has accompanied her to Moscow, Anatole’s friends Dolokhov (Nick Choksi) and “Balaga” (Paul Pinto), and Helen (Amber Gray), who is Pierre’s wife and Anatole’s sister.

The plot is pretty convoluted with lots of characters who have difficult names. “It’s a complicated Russian novel. Everyone has nine different names,” they sing. But have no fear. The audience is supplied with a helpful synopsis, a diagram and a note on the translation.

Malloy’s score is a combination of Russian folk music, classical music and indie rock. This might be a challenge for some singers, but the powerfully voiced and energetic cast is up to the challenge. They leap, they fall, they swoon, never missing a beat or a note.

“Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812” is something like a musical soap opera. And like a soap opera, it goes on and one. The show clocks in at well over two hours and seriously needs to be cut. After a while not all the humor works as well as it did at the beginning. (Yeah, we get it; you’re singing a Russian novel.) And by the end of the show the music seems to be repeating itself.

But if you find yourself growing impatient, just pour another glass of vodka and all will be well.

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