Saturday, December 19, 2015

Pierogi, Pop Music, and Portentous Comets: Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812 at ART

Denée Benton as Natasha, in Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812. (Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)

During the intermission of Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812 at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, my friend turned to me and said, “This is probably the future of theatre.” It was meant more as a statement about the difficulty of providing a unique, compelling theatrical experience that could draw people otherwise content to watch Netflix at home than a compliment to the show, although the production is quite enjoyable. As a conventional stage musical, Great Comet certainly isn’t perfect, but the immersive nature of its staging elevates it and makes it something more vital and exciting than it would be in a more traditional form.

The play, which ran Off-Broadway before coming to the ART in preparation for a Broadway opening, adapts just a small portion of Leo Tolstoy’s infamously long novel War and Peace (which I must confess to having never read), focusing on the love affair between the young Natasha, whose fiancé is away fighting Napoleon’s armies, and Anatole, the married rogue who attempts to seduce her. Meanwhile, Anatole’s brother-in-law, Pierre, struggles with his sense of purpose in a life filled mainly with booze and books; much of his general misery stems from the fact that his wife, Helene, takes after her playboy brother. The decision to limit the musical’s focus to a relatively short part of the book is a smart one on creator Dave Malloy’s (he’s credited with writing the book, music, and lyrics) part, as it prevents him from having to either ruthlessly excise most of the novel’s plot strands or have the evening turn into a marathon that loses cohesion as it drags on. That latter trap was one that Hamilton, the current blockbuster Broadway hit about the eponymous Founding Father, sometimes almost fell into, and in that regard, at least, the comparison reflects well on Malloy’s decision.

Speaking of Hamilton, it’s hard not to draw parallels between Lin-Manuel Miranda’s deservedly vaunted musical and this show. Both are sung-through pop musicals that use contemporary styles of music and copious anachronism to tell stories firmly rooted in the historical context of the turn of the nineteenth century. Great Comet’s limited narrative scope serves it well, but the fact that it’s virtually all sung doesn’t work nearly as well here as it does for Hamilton. As I said in my review of that show, it works as a sung-through musical because its hip-hop elements effectively make it a verse drama, and at any rate Miranda has a better ear for creating well-defined pop songs. Some of Malloy’s songs are good, such as a witty opening number that’s both funny and remarkably effective at introducing the complicated cast of characters; despite the performers’ injunctions to the audience to read their programs, I never felt lost when tracking the various characters and their relationships. After a while, though, the songs start to bleed into one another, which in turn means that the show begins to lack clearly-demarcated narrative and tonal shifts. It also sometimes felt as though Malloy hadn’t fully dramatized Tolstoy’s novel: characters frequently narrate their actions (“He said,” “she said,” “I do this,” etc.), which causes moments like the climactic encounter between the two title characters to lose some of their power.

Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812 at the Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge, MA. (Photo By Chad Batka)

While the script and score have their ups and downs, I’m much less ambivalent about the incredible set by Mimi Lien, who has completely transformed ART’s Loeb Drama Center into a club, complete with tables and chairs where the stage would normally be. There’s a central circle that holds most of the orchestra, although other musicians are scattered throughout the playing space (this can be a problem: I got an earful at various points throughout the show from some sort of woodwind that was being played directly behind me). Even the main seating area has had multiple seats removed to make space for small tables, as well as narrow platforms on which the cast can perform.

Director Rachel Chavkin makes the most of this set-up, creating a dynamic environment where performers are constantly dancing, singing, and grabbing props from tables occupied by audience members. I’m not sure if you could call the show “immersive” in the strictest sense, since you’re still sitting there and watching the action unfold, but it certainly surrounds you and engages you in a way that’s rare in mainstream theatre. If nothing else, the experience of having actors descend on my table to to serve pierogi as the show opened and later to snort (fake) lines of cocaine (don’t ask) in the middle of a number was certainly a novelty.

Among the cast, both Denèe Benton and Scott Stangland stand out in the title roles, especially in their final scene together. As I said, the show loses definition and nuance as it goes along, so the way in which Benton and Stangland work together to establish a sense of slow, unsteady progression to the scene comes as a relief. I also liked Brittain Ashford as Sonya, not least because of her unique voice, which felt more attuned to the environment of a coffeehouse or folk club than a brassy Broadway musical. Other featured actors were more of a mixed bag: Nicholas Belton turns the decrepit old Prince Bolkonsky into a one-note grotesque, all exaggerated shakes and growly voice, while Grace McLean (who plays Natasha’s aunt Marya) and Lucas Steele (Anatole) play their characters with a presentational style that put me off. I noticed that all three of these performers have been with the show for its Off-Broadway incarnation, which made me wonder if they hadn’t gotten stale in their parts after playing them for so long.

Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812 is headed to Broadway next, with celebrity Josh Groban stepping into the role of Pierre. I’m not sure how well its unique staging will translate to a Broadway house, and Groban has always struck me as someone who projects emotions instead of playing characters (at least in serious roles), so it’s an open question as to whether or not it will improve with the transfer. If nothing else, it’s not the sort of production that you’re likely to see very often in a conventional theatre – at least not yet.

– Michael Lueger teaches theatre classes at Northeastern University and Emerson College. He's written for HowlRound and WBUR's Cognoscentipage. He also tweets about theatre history at @theaterhistory.

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