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

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15 Dec 2013

Lucas Steele in Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.
photo by Chad Batka
Not here, they don't. Malloy's viewpoint, which is shared with director Rachel Chavkin, who helped develop the piece and did a marvelous job of staging it in Mimi Lien's environmental setting, seems to have been to determine, from moment to moment, what feels right. This is not very scientific, and I don't know that it would work on another occasion. Here, though, Malloy's every instinct is successful.

Thus we get that intriguing prologue, which hooks us into the story; Natasha's beautiful aria to the moon, "No One Else"; "Natasha & Anatole," a song of seduction to a heavy dance beat; "Natasha Lost," in which the heroine realizes her fate; the villainess Hélène's song "Charming," so insinuating that you won't be able to forget it (while you wonder if it wouldn't work perfectly for Snow White's stepmother); "Letters," another tune that won't quit the inner mind; "Sonya Alone" for the heroine's loyal cousin, perhaps the most beautiful song in the score; "Natasha & Pierre," an exquisite musical scene accompanied only by piano; and the altogether soaring finale "The Great Comet of 1812," which turns everything around and ends the story on a suddenly hopeful note (not unlike "Make Our Garden Grow" from Candide).

[Spoiler alert: The Great Comet is only a small, relatively early slice of "War and Peace." Later in the novel, Pierre joins the Army; fails in an attempt to assassinate Napoleon; and is taken prisoner by the French. After the war, Natasha and Pierre get married and live happily ever after.]

The cast — all but one of whom I was thoroughly unfamiliar with — is outstanding. Leading the group is Phillipa Soo, who gives an altogether stunning performance as Natasha. Malloy, as noted, makes a remarkable Pierre; he left the cast shortly after the move last May, but he returned to sing the role on the recording. (He has been replaced by David Abeles, who played the recording engineer and did much of the heavy guitar work in Once.) As for Malloy, he is presently appearing in his newest work, a "philosophical musical fantasia" called Black Wizard/Blue Wizard. This is playing through Dec. 22 at the Incubator Arts Project in St. Mark's Church in the East Village. I don't know about you, but I plan to run down to see it. It sounds unusual, sure, but then so did The Great Comet.

Brittain Ashford (as Sonya) and Amber Gray (as Hélène) are both major assets, and Lucas Steele — who had been impressive as the younger father in the New Group's 2010 production of Dan Savage's The Kid — makes a perfect rake as Anatole. Or Matias, the actual music director/conductor, leads a top-notch band in Malloy's stunning and decidedly unusual-for-theatre orchestrations. Malloy seems to like to stray off pitch, cannily doing so to express his characters' state when they stray off pitch. There is even an eerie sequence accompanied by the cast rubbing their fingers across the rims of liquid-filled wine goblets.

The show, as you might have heard, has thus far been performed in Russian café-type venues which perfectly fit the show. My guess, though, is that it will eventually find its way into traditional theatre spaces — and it will continue to thrive. The milieu makes it a great "event" musical, but it is Dave Malloy's score that is The Great Comet's true strength.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes," "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," the "Opening Night on Broadway" books, and "The Book of Mormon: The Testament of a Broadway Musical." He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)

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Phillipa Soo
Photo by Christopher Lueck

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