Review: NATASHA, PIERRE & THE GREAT COMET of 1812

by Lynn on December 24, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Streetcar Crowsnest (Guloien Theatre), Toronto, Ont. A Crow’s Theatre and The Musical Stage Company production. Extended until March 17, 2024.

www.crowstheatre.com

Composer, librettist, orchestrator, Dave Malloy

Directed by Chris Abraham

Choreography by Ray Hogg

Music direction by Ryan DeSouza

Co-set designer, Julie Fox

Co-set designer, Joshua Quinlan

Costume designer, Ming Wong

Lighting designer, Kimberly Purtell

Sound designer, Ryan Borshuk

Cast: Divine Brown

Evan Buliung

Rita Dottor

Camille Eanga-Selenge

Donna Garner

George Krissa

Lawrence Libor

Marcus Nance

Heeyun Park

Tyler Pearse

Andrew Penner

Louise Pitre

A fiercely bold, daring production, pulsing with emotion and activity. Stunning performances, but the sound balance needs attention because the reverb of the hard-playing orchestra almost drowns out the singers.

The Story. Creator Dave Malloy has taken a small section of Tolstoy’s epic novel, “War and Peace” -the section where Natasha, in love with and betrothed to Andrey, meets dashing Anatole and is smitten with him—and fashioned his own classic and yet contemporary story.

The Production. Director Chris Abraham and his creators: Ray Hogg (choreographer), Julie Fox and Joshua Quinlan (co-set designers), Ming Wong (costume designer), Kimberly Purtell (lighting) and Ryan Borshuk (sound design) have put the audience right in the middle of the opulence of Russia’s aristocracy and upper classes in 1812.

The audience sits on three sides of the raised playing area. The raised platform revolves often during the production. Staircases lead to the upper level which go along the sides and the back of the stage. The orchestra is arranged along the upper level. Scenes are staged up there as well. Action goes on in front of the platform and around the sides of the space. It gives the production an immersive feel to it, although the audience sits in one place.

Large swaths of red drapery hang down and to the sides on the upper level of the stage. Ornate adornments are attached to the corners of the platform, giving it a sense of ‘richness’. The cast and the visible orchestra are all in elegant, period costumes. In the performance I saw stage hands in costume, as well as actors, pushed the platform around during the action. On the ground level there is an upright piano at the back on which are many crystal bottles etc.

Pierre (Evan Buliung), rich, unhappily married, disheveled and alcoholic, gets things started in the “Prologue” that introduces the characters (reminiscent of the form of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” but much wittier). Evan Buliung has a rich voice, precise diction and a clear sense of ennui. It’s a performance that is big and heartbreaking.

To give an example of Dave Malloy’s wit, irreverence and efficiency in telling who is who in the show, here is a ‘truncated’ version of the Prologue lyrics by way of introduction:

Prologue Lyrics

 

[PIERRE]


There’s a war going on
Out there somewhere

And Andrey isn’t here
There’s a war going on
Out there somewhere
And Andrey isn’t here

[ALL]
There’s a war going on
Out there somewhere
And Andrey isn’t here
There’s a war going on
Out there somewhere
And Andrey isn’t here

And this is all in your program
You are at the opera
Gonna have to study up a little bit
If you wanna keep with the plot
‘Cause it’s a complicated Russian novel
Everyone’s got nine different names
So look it up in your program
We’d appreciate it, thanks a lot
………

[NATASHA]
Natasha is young
She loves Andrey with all her heart


[ALL]
She loves Andrey with all her heart
Natasha is young
And Andrey isn’t here

[SONYA]
Sonya is good
Natasha’s cousin and closest friend

……….



[MARYA]
Marya is old-school, a grande dame of Moscow
Natasha’s godmother, strict yet kind


……..
Anatole!

[ANATOLE]
Anatole is hot
He spends his money on women and wine


[ALL]
He spends his money on women and wine
Anatole is hot
Marya is old-school
Sonya is good
Natasha is young
And Andrey isn’t here

[HÉLÈNE]
Hélène is a slut
Anatole’s sister, married to Pierre

[ALL]
Anatole’s sister, married to Pierre
Hélène is a slut
Anatole is hot
Marya is old-school
Sonya is good
Natasha is young
And Andrey isn’t here

[DOLOKHOV]
Dolokhov is fierce, but not too important
Anatole’s friend, a crazy good shot

[ALL]
Anatole’s friend, a crazy good shot
Dolokhov is fierce
Hélène is a slut
Anatole is hot
Marya is old-school
Sonya is good
Natasha is young
And Andrey isn’t here

Chandeliers and caviar, the war can’t touch us here
Minor characters!

[BOLKONSKY]
Old Prince Bolkonsky is crazy

[MARY]
And Mary is plain

[MARY & BOLKONSKY]
Andrey’s family, totally messed up

[BALAGA]
And Balaga’s just for fun!

[ALL]
Balaga’s just for fun!
Balaga is fun
Bolkonsky is crazy
Mary is plain
Dolokhov is fierce
Hélène is a slut
Anatole is hot
Marya is old-school
Sonya is good
Natasha is young
And Andrey isn’t here

And what about Pierre?
Dear, bewildered and awkward Pierre?
What about Pierre?
Rich, unhappily married Pierre?
…………

After everybody and their relationships are introduced in song, they then sing about their emotions, philosophies, regrets, passions and hopes. Relationships are established with the major one being Natasha and Andrey until she meets Anatole. Natasha is played with pent-up, breathless emotion by Hailey Gillis, as she kisses her fiancée Andrey (Marcus Nance) good-bye as he goes off to fight in the Napoleonic.

On a trip to Moscow Natasha meets the dashing Anatole. Anatole is played by the dashing George Krissa and Natasha becomes instantly besotted by him. Anatole is a charming cad; all swagger and flexing pecks and George Krissa plays him beautifully.  The specter of Andrey (a noble, elegant Marcus Nance) passes in and around the action as an “absent” presence for all who remain at home. Natasha is conflicted about her feelings with both men. Anatole is determined to have her. She is warned. But does she listen?

The cast is very strong. They are all beautiful singers. But notable in smaller roles is Heeyun Park as Mary (Andrey’s unhappy sister). She has an arresting economy in her playing and sings beautifully. Lawrence Libor plays Dolokhov, a hot-headed friend of Anatole; he is watchful, dangerous and arrogant. Lawrence Libor has been compelling in everything I’ve seen him in.

Director Chris Abraham establishes the heightened emotions of the characters and the situations by clearly illuminating the headiness of the relationships. I would assume that the constant swirl of activity of the cast scurrying up and down the staircases, maneuvering around that revolving platform and all the other frenetic movement in the space, is a collaboration with choreographer Ray Hogg. The purpose of it all would be to created the sense of grand passions of operatic proportions. Ok, but it’s exhausting, not just for the cast, but also for the audience. Could the same result be established with less (unnecessary, constant) movement. I betcha.

The Guloien Theatre has been used to great effect in many other Crow’s productions. But this is a musical with a blasting orchestra under the direction of Ryan DeSouza and the sound has got to be balanced better so that they ‘support’ the singers and not almost drown them out. The reverb of the piano etc. is a constant presence in the production. How many times does a person/critic/scribbler/patron have to say: “IT’S TOO LOUD!!!’ before anybody pays attention?

Comment. Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 is a huge accomplishment for Crow’s which is on a well deserved roll of bracing, challenging, exciting productions. It’s a story of huge emotions and passions; philosophical musings in song and a clear vision by a gifted director. Please fix the sound.

A Crow’s Theatre and The Musical Stage Company production.

Extended until March 17, 2024.

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (1 intermission)

www.crowstheatre.com

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Myriam December 24, 2023 at 2:08 pm

Dear Lynn,
Wishing you a lovely and quiet holiday season. I am a dedicated fan Abd follower, many many thanks for your insightful reviews and amusing comments. I’m not an expert in theatre criticism, and I rely on your recommendations with anticipation.
Thanks again , Lynn, all the best for 2024,
Myriam

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2 Lynn December 24, 2023 at 2:52 pm

Hi Myriam. Thanks for this. And the best to you too. Happy theatre going. Best of the New Year.

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3 Michael Mitchell December 25, 2023 at 9:50 am

This musical was set the same year (I think) that the book which is subject to your previous review (i.e. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen) was published, which makes sense I guess as the Napoleonic Wars as two of Austens’ brothers fought in the wars for the Royal Navy. Did this musical by Dave Malloy say much about Russia’s involvement with the Napoelonic Wars, or was that left out of the story? Anyways, I’m glad to see all this work from such an interesting time period. I hope someone does something with the war of 1812, then I’ll really be able to put my elementary school education to the test.

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