review: natasha, pierre & the great comet of 1812

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Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812

by Dave Malloy
Directed by Rachel Chavkin
Featuring Dave Malloy, Phillipa Soo, Amelia Workman
Ars Nova, 511 West 54th Street
October 16, 2012 (opening) — November 17, 2012
production web site

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
October 20, 2012

“In 19th century Russia we write letters, we write letters.”

(L-R) foreground Amelia Workman, Phillipa Soo (in white), Dave Malloy (with accordion).

An audience experience that is cheek by jowl, knees touching knees, backs of cafe chairs touching the edges of chairs to the right and left and behind, and actors make their way smoothly through and sometimes parting chairs around a table to fit their own in, or climbing atop a table or bar. This is the physical world director Rachel Chavkin and scenic designer Mimi Lien have created in the Ars Nova performance space on 54th Street to frame musician Dave Malloy‘s world of pre-revolutionary Russian love stories and class and war.

Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 is a wash of delightful vocal and instrumental music, luscious costumes, and clear story telling (though I admit I was greatly helped as the evening continued by a helpful key of characters and their relationships and a short plot synopsis included in the program).  This rich melodious world transports an audience member back 200 years into a Russia of military officers and rich patrician families and servants. Vodka on the tables assists the transformation, consumable in disposable shot glasses, and the theatrical artistry keeps you there.

I’ve lived in a world of  a Dave Malloy musical creation once before.  The well-traveled and much-heralded Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage landed in Joe’s Pub for a time in 2010, where I caught up with it. More hands were credited with creative involvement in that adventure — two directors, a book writer, the music writer Malloy, and wild Nordic romps of emotion.  The music, I noted at the time, drew from klezmer, Balkan Beat Box, Betty close harmonies, and other sources to create a smart, tight, unique aural universe.  The same musical influences are suggested to me as I listened to The Great Comet’s opera / recitative / live music adventures.  Amelia Workman as Marya evokes for me a young Eartha Kitt more than once during the evening. Marya is godmother to Natasha/Natalie (Phillipa Soo), our multiply besotted ingenue, and duets between the two women are mesmerizing.  Other delicious solos and duets involve Natasha’s cousin Sonya (Brittain Ashford), and Mary (Gelsey Bell), the sister of Natasha’s absent fiancée Andrey. This is just the beginning of the cast of characters, and they entrance you for several hours, in direct address and dancing and singing overhead and behind your back and over your shoulder.

There are many means one can use to craft a theatrical world for a 21st century audience. It is rare that I want to move into the world that has been created as I did in this presentation. By chance my table mates for my performance were other theatre creators from the region, all of whom I was meeting for the first time, yet some of whom I knew by reputation. The work we were experiencing opened us up to extended conversations about art and life and making connections.  Such is the power of theatrical worlds. Such is the wonder of this one.

© Martha Wade Steketee (October 24, 2012)

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