"Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812" – A Dazzling Look at Russian History

Culture Watch
tags: theater review, Natasha Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

The first things that you notice when you walk into the Imperial Theater in New York to see Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 are the posters splashed against the walls, printed in Russian. Then you see members of the orchestra drifting about the theater in colorful 1812 Russian clothing and then you hear a serenade of Russian music, fast and slow. You sit down in the middle of a theater that has been renovated to accommodate the immersive play, in which dozens of actors race past you as part of the musical. An usher tells you to keep your feet out of the aisle or an actor will step on your toes.

And then Natasha, Pierre, Andrei, Anatole and the other dynamic characters in the show come flying out of the darkness on to the stage to the sound of booming music. Everything and everybody races past you except the Russian Army on its way to do battle with the French forces of Napoleon Bonaparte, which are invading the country in 1805 and causing havoc and destruction wherever they go.

Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 is a musical adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s thick, thick, thick novel, War and Peace, 1300 pages long and counting, one of the longest novels ever written. Have you ever read War in Peace? I tried three summers ago, but stopped at the end of the first scene, that was around page 240. It is a tough read because of its length and that is a shame because it is considered one of the world’s great works. It was staged as a six-part BBC mini-series several years ago and it was magnificent.

This musical at the Imperial, on W. 45th Street, is just as good. Tolstoy would be proud, and he would be tapping his feet to the boisterous music, too. It is a dazzling look at a rich and yet troubled era in the history of Russia, ruled by the Czars, dominated by the rich and fighting for its life against Napoleon.

The play is just soaked in history. You learn all about Napoleon’s invasion and the threat it poses. Most importantly, though, you learn about the social world of the rich and their elaborate parties. You learn in scene after scene that the Russians could drink anybody under the table, too.

What book writer Dave Malloy did was pull out the whirling romances between some of the main characters in the book and stitch them together to produce a titillating story. Except for a few appearances by a soldier, Andre, there are no scenes about the war itself, which takes up much of the book (Tolstoy devotes twenty chapters to just one battle). The life of one of the central characters, the oafish Pierre, is trimmed down and you do not see him in the war, either. A large number of characters in the story have been cut out to make the plot move faster.

The drama that is left is sensational, though. It’s complicated. Oh, is it complicated. Here it is in a nutshell: Pierre is married to Helen, whom he can’t stand and whose brother is Anatole, an incredibly good looking guy (really conceited), He is in love with Natasha, who's knock down gorgeous, and who is engaged to Andrey, who is off in the war. Andrey’s sister Mary, a snoop if there ever was one, is monitoring Natasha closely, as is Sonya, Natasha’s cousin. Off in the distance is Anatole’s friend Dolokhov, Andrey’s dad Bolkonsky and Balaga, a man who can seemingly leap 40 yards in a single bound.

Well, while Andrey is away, Natasha falls head over heels for the amorous Anatole and parades around with him at all the good parties. What pretty little Natasha does not know is that Anatole is secretly married to another woman. Yes!

Got it so far?

This is why Malloy has done such a fine job with the book of the story. He makes these complications reasonably easy to follow by cutting out all the other extraneous characters in the book and simplifying the ones he does use. The story starts and unfolds nicely, with a few wicked twists and turns that you must be careful to follow.

The play is staged throughout audience, with actors singing and dancing up in the balcony too. It is a sight to see hundreds of people being so careful not to get their toes stepped on.

There is a loss in not having any scenery, but that is made up by the brilliant direction of Rachel Chavkin, who does a marvelous job of giving you scene by scene in a fast paced yet understandable way. If you know a little bit about the book you can follow most of this. But if you do not know anything about the book you can follow most of it too. That is the wonder of Malloy’s book and Chavkin’s directing. They understood that while everybody knows about War and Peace, few have managed to get through it.

The characters carry the story, but it is all of the ensemble singers, dancers and traveling musicians who provide the sheer burst of joy in the play as they cavort through the theater, playing their accordions and clarinets. The music in the show, also by Malloy, is rapturous, full of every style you can think of, even gypsy music. The dancers get superb choreography direction from Sam Pinkleton.

The performers in the show are all wonderful. Famed singer Josh Groban is surprisingly good as Pierre, the wealthy aristocrat who seems to do everything wrong (he wears, as Groban says, a “fat suit”). Sparkling Denee Benton is a sensation as Natasha, the young, gorgeous heroine of the story. Lucas Steele is lovable as the rogue Anatole.  Other fine performances are delivered by Brittain Ashford, Gelsey Bell, Nicholas Benton, and Nick Choksi.

The history in the musical is pretty accurate in some parts and a little loose in others. Tolstoy did prodigious research for his book, even walking the battlefields he wrote about, but he twisted the history in certain places (such as underplaying the lives of the oppressed serfs). Even so, it is a nice toast to early 19th century Russian history and a good look at the corrupt and immoral rich.

You don’t learn much about the leaders of Russia, though (I guess they were off on their computers hacking into Hillary Clinton’s 2016 Presidential campaign to help Donald Trump win).

Theaters across the county should stage more immersive plays like this one. There is just nothing as rewarding as having a play, especially a musical, unfold around you.

So to Natasha, Pierre and all the folks who saw the great comet of 1812 at the Imperial Theater – Nostrovia!

PRODUCTION: Sets: Mimi Lien, Costumes: Paloma Young, lighting: Bradley King, Sound: Nicolas Pope. The play is directed by Rachel Chavkin. It has an open ended run.

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