ON THE RECORD: Dave Malloy's Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812

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15 Dec 2013

Cover art
Cover art

This week's column discusses the original cast album of Dave Malloy's new-style musical Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.


Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 [Ghostlight]

I sat down at a preview of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 not knowing quite what to expect. The decor was certainly out of the ordinary, something like what the Russian Tea Room might look like if it had been transformed into a bordello 20 years back. But the tables were significantly more crammed than at the Tea Room; with strangers sharing my table and surrounding my elbows, last-minute patrons shoe-horning in, and waitstaff darting through space with trays full of vodka, conditions did not seem conducive to a warm and welcoming musical.

But then they started. A friendly, bearded fellow in wire-rim glasses who looked like anything but an actor — or an 1812 Muscovite, either — started playing a lone accordion and singing like a non-singer giving it all his worth. "There's a war going on out there somewhere, and Andrey isn't here," he sang, and repeated it. After which he was joined by the entire cast — still to that one squeezebox — repeating the phrase twice more. They all then went on to explain that this was all taken from a complicated Russian novel, where everyone has nine different names, and you should check the chart in your program if you want to keep up with the plot. They also introduced the cast, one by one, not with lengthy paragraphs but a few words each: Natasha is young, Sonya is good, Anatole is hot.

Phillipa Soo
photo by Chad Batka

When they told us that Anatole is hot, and the actor playing Anatole gave us what can only be described as a sheepishly conceited "hot" look, the thrust of the evening became clear. This was going to be "War and Peace," after a fashion, but it was going to be channeled through a gleefully contemporary filter. "Sit back and relax, you're in good hands" was the attitude I got. As the number progressed — they introduced everyone in "Twelve Days of Christmas" manner, so that we were gently eased into our Tolstoy — you could feel the entire audience being won over. Seasoned theatregoers, new-age electrotechno fans, slumming tourists and more; it became immediately clear that The Great Comet was a canny mixture of high-brow, low-brow and no-brow, with everyone welcome along for the sleigh ride.

That fellow at the accordion, I quickly divined, must also be the conductor or something; he seemed to be leading the band and the singers. It turned out, after the raucous opening, that he was also playing the role of Pierre. Still, while the other actors were singing he was playing a keyboard; when others were speaking he sat in the pit area, reading. (I happened to be sitting directly across a narrow ramp from him.) How novel, I thought, to have the musical director also play one of the title characters! As the evening progressed, this non-actorly fellow turned out to be a highly sympathetic and moving Pierre; in the final scenes, he grasped hold of the piece and provided its most sensitive, tender and beautiful moments. During the curtain calls of this preview, I realized that this Pierre was actually the composer/lyricist, Dave Malloy, which is perhaps why he was able to put so much heart into the part.

The Great Comet began life with a limited engagement at the 90-seat Ars Nova on the far West Side, starting in October 2012. It reconfigured itself, a half-year later, as a full commercial production for a summer run in its own, custom-made 200-seat tent on 13th Street, directly under the Highline. When that site was reclaimed for construction, they packed up the entire operation and moved it to 45th Street, next to the Imperial Theatre. They are scheduled to continue there until Jan. 5, 2014, after which — who knows? In the meanwhile, Ghostlight has released the original cast album of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, both online and in a two-disc set.

I feel honor-bound to mention that I wrote the liner notes for the album — but I only did so because I like the show so much. Malloy works in a combination of styles, ranging from nouveau-techno whatever to pristine art songs. I'm not much of a techno type, but in The Great Comet it all works; the very variety of styles helps move the story along and keeps the audience hooked. Anyone who's sat through traditional costume operetta versions of "great" novels and been bored knows that things can sometimes get a little wearying.


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