Wednesday, July 30, 2014
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New York Review: NATASHA, PIERRE & THE GREAT COMET OF 1812

By Toby Zinman

New York Review: NATASHA, PIERRE & THE GREAT COMET OF 1812

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By Toby Zinman

For the Inquirer

Some smart person once said, “If Life could write, it would write like Tolstoy.” Anybody who has fallen in love with Tolstoy’s novel, War and Peace, knows how true this is, making it unlikely that an adaptation of the enormous novel for the stage—a musical adaptation at that—would measure up. And yet, somehow, this does. David Malloy’s show, Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 is gorgeous, preserving Tolstoy’s magnificent prose in a sung-though musical opera. You don’t have to know the novel to enjoy the show, but knowing it makes it all the better.

Leaving “War” out, Malloy chose the central love story: young Natasha (Phillipa Soo) is engaged to Andrey (Blake DeLong); he exits through clanging metal doors in a puff of smoke—the same doors and same smoke that will present Anatole (the spectacular Lucas Steele). The first song, “There’s a war going on out there somewhere and Andrey isn’t here” introduces all characters, with each verse ending with the crucial fact, “And Andrey isn’t here.” In his absence, amoral Anatole with his immoral sister Helene (Amber Gray) and dashing military pal Dolokhov (Ian Lassiter) will seduce the naïve and easily dazzled Natasha. Her friend Sonya (Brittain Ashford) is the perfect contralto foil. Pierre (Dave Malloy—so tender, so hangdog, so good) wastes his life; “our merry, feasting friend” drinks too much, reads too long, and becomes the moral pivot of the plot. His final song, when he sees the comet of 1812 in the “firmament,” is quietly glorious.

Rachel Chavkin’s direction is very clever, moving our attention from one spot in the room too another, alternating scenes as wisely as Tolstoy did: first quiet, then noisy, then sweet, then brash. The song where Mary (Gelsey Bell) and Natasha meet and take an instant dislike to each other (“irksome, irksome”) shifts to Natasha dancing alone “in the snowy moonlight” (the lighting designed by Bradley King is ravishing). Then off to the grand opera, then a wild scene at the club, all strobe lights and strippers, and so on. Malloy’s wonderful, haunting songs use music not only to accompany the voices but to comment, sometimes sardonically, on the events. The singers are all superb actors, conveying character with mannerisms and expressions that instantly sketch a personality. The costumes, designed by Paloma Young, are both sumptuous and apt. My only disappointment was that the show ended.

Billed as an “electro-pop opera,” I mistakenly expected it to be one of those tragically trendy High Concept pieces. This was especially true since the venue, Kazino (written in Russian on its outside walls), is a makeshift corner site in the middle of the meatpacking district, now filled with designer showrooms where absurdly high heels and high prices have replaced meat. The entrance is under the High Line—more supercoolness--and stepping inside you find corrugated metal walls, men in suits with clipboards looking like Russian gangsters. Step through the door into the theatre, however, and you’re suddenly in a 19th century Russian supperclub: tiers of little tables and padded banquettes, walls covered with dark red cloth and hung with paintings. The actors perform—with astonishing surefootedness—throughout the audience; musicians are stationed discreetly at various stations, sometimes reading their music from a framed score which looks like a picture. The food service, by stunning young Eastern European women with appropriate accents, is unobtrusive, and the borscht is delish.

===At Kazino, 13th & Washington Sts, New York. Through Sept. 1 Tickets: $125; $175 premium includes lunch or dinner Information: OvationTix: 866-811-4111 or http://www.thegreatcometof1812.com

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About this blog
Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer. She also is a contributing writer for Variety and American Theatre magazine. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of four books about four playwrights (Rabe, McNally, Miller, Albee), and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). Her 'weekend' job as a travel writer provides adventure: dogsledding in the Yukon, ziplining in Belize, walking coast-to-coast across England, and cowboying in the Australian Outback.


Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.


Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.


Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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