Theater – Natasha Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812

Ok guys, I’m going to do a little bragging up front: I’ve read War and Peace.  I know, I know.  I’m awesome.  You can stop applauding now.  How does one read a tome like that?  By having a very long commute, and using audiobooks.  I’m talking nearly 40 CDs.  It was a lot.  I think I renewed at least once to get through it.  Anyways – today’s post is not about that book, but about a show based on a very small sliver.  Because while the “Peace” sections of W&P are great (they are the sort of society and manners tales that aren’t too far off from Jane Austen), the “War” bits can be tedious if you’re not interested in battles and strategies.

But yeah – back to the show.  “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812” is a musical that’s based on a 70-page slice from the middle of the book and focuses mostly on the story of Countess Natasha Rostova, a young woman who is biding her time in Moscow society while her fiance is off at war with Napoleon.  She has a couple encounters with the dashing Prince Anatole Kuragin that lead her to believe she is in love with him, and makes a plan to run away with him.  Her chaperone in town calls upon an old family friend – Count Pierre Bezukhov – to deal with this young man (who is incidentally his brother-in-law), and to talk to Natasha.  He does both, Natasha recovers from the incident, and Pierre begins to have feelings for Natasha.  And that’s it – the end!  I’ve spoiled the plot for you.  You’re ruined!

I’d heard about this show more than a year ago because it was an odd sort of staging that felt more like it was built around a Russian club than a proper theater.  When we attended, half the seating was what you would think of as “normal” – but with the odd addition of the occasional cafe table with light on it – and the rest was sort of situated within a curling stage (see picture).  Some of the seats on and near the stage were subject to interaction by the cast, and there are even guides on where to sit in the theater depending on the type of theater experience you’re looking for.  In any case, it’s one of the most immersive shows I’ve seen, with the supporting cast and the chorus often singing, dancing and performing right in front of the audience all over the theater – even in the upper levels.

We had hoped that one of our faves – Ingrid Michaelson – would be performing in the show while we were there, but a week or so before we went up to NYC, we discovered that she was taking a week off in the middle of her run…right at the time we would be there.  Oh well.  The show was still performing with it’s original leading lady, Denée Benton in the role of Natasha, with Okieriete Onaodowan (best known from Hamilton) performing in the role of Pierre.  Benton was so delicate and perfectly portrayed the flighty emotions of a young woman who is separated from her love, and at the same time intrigued by a new man who is OBVIOUSLY flirting with her.  Oak broke my heart when he sang Dust and Ashes, which was the song that affected me most over the course of the show.  The rest of the cast is really impressive too, and I was blown away by the chorus members who both sang and played instruments and danced.  Just amazing.  Everyone participating in the show must have so much energy.

We took the girls with us to the show, and for 11 year old H it was a little easier to follow.  But for 8 year old E, it was a struggle.  The show is completely sung-through, meaning there is no spoken dialogue.  We had considered seeing Anastasia or School of Rock, and I’m pretty sure that those would have been easier for her to follow the story.  But even if she didn’t understand the entirety of what was happening in the story, E did agree that the music was beautiful, the costumes were amazing, and the dancing was terrific.  But if we had to do it again…I’m not sure I would bring an 8 year old.  This is definitely a show for mature/thoughtful 10-year olds, and for 12-and ups who can more easily follow a story that’s told only through music.  Thank goodness for the family/relationship tree in the program that we used to explain the story at intermission.

And as much as I want to say, “GO SEE IT, THIS SHOW IS AWESOME”, you don’t have a lot of time.  Apparently, despite the many awards and nominations, and the excitement over a diverse cast, and the energetic staging, the show has been having problems selling tickets without a big name.  Josh Groban originally starred, and since his departure in early July, things have slowed.  And then there was a slight controversy involving Oak’s tenure in the role of Pierre and possibly bringing in Mandy Patinkin.  Suffice it to say, things started going downhill quickly, and now the show is closing September 3.  So if my post and review have interested you, go now.  Like, NOW NOW, because this lovely show isn’t going to be around forever, and due to its unique staging, I’m not sure how much it will be able to tour or be played in other theaters.

Details: Natasha Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, now playing at the Imperial Theatre, 249 W 45th Street. Tickets available online or through TKTS for same day performances (not guaranteed).  Last performance September 3.

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