Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 is a musical of riches.
Draped in luxe velvet and adorned with glittering lights, the Canadian premiere of Dave Malloy’s aristocratic epic has finally received a warm welcome, following a significant delay due to illness. Chris Abraham’s vision for the sprawling work, a co-production between Crow’s Theatre and Musical Stage Company, is ambitious – and in some places, overly so – but time and time again, it’s that richness to which the production returns, from its perfectly calibrated band, situated above the audience (more on this later) and led by Ryan deSouza, to Ming Wong’s ever-wonderful costumes.
A summary of the musical would be (almost) as long as its name. But in short, the two-and-a-half-hour beast of a libretto traces a thin sliver of plot from Tolstoy’s War and Peace, split between two-ish generations: the young lovers and their confidants, and the parents and parental stand-ins who guide them through life as members of the Moscovian elite. On media night, Crow’s played selections from Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours in the lobby before the show and at intermission – an amusing choice for a story about young people cheating on and with each other.
It’s the performances that buoy a production that occasionally gets carried away by its own chaos. Evan Buliung astounds as Pierre, reaching scorching emotional depths as the aging, alcoholic scholar searching for greater meaning. Hailey Gillis is a natural Natasha, a glowing ingenue whose soprano lilt more than compensates for a character frequently denied sophistication by Malloy’s writing. George Krissa as Anatole nails the heartthrob trope, a tenor with hubris and fiendish charm, while Lawrence Libor’s Dolokhov frequently steals the show as Anatole’s best friend. Camille Eanga-Selenge is a heartbreaking Sonya, whose “Sonya Alone” makes you ache for the young girl grieving her cousin Natasha’s folly, and Heeyun Park 박희윤’s Mary fleshes out a tiny role into one of the standout figures in this three-ring-circus of a show.
Then, of course, there’s Balaga, who’s played with fantastic, indulgent gravitas by Andrew Penner (who also plays guitar and drums in the band). Balaga the sleigh driver is afforded a long dance number in the musical’s second act, during which some audience members are handed egg shakers, and others are pulled onstage to jive. It’s a cacophonous, playful sequence, at odds with the events happening in the story (Natasha and Anatole are fleeing Moscow to elope and escape their respective partners, against the wishes of their friends and family). “Balaga” is the moment you’ll leave Crow’s buzzing about – it’s a gorgeous moment of high-energy, over-the-top musical theatre.
But – and there is a but – there’s the frustrating matter of the production’s overall direction. There’s a long list of achievements in Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 for which Abraham can be proud: the pacing, for one, is impressively zippy, and solo moments like Buliung’s “Dust and Ashes” are blocked nearly perfectly, making the most of the almost-in-the-round audience configuration. On the technical side of things, there’s an impressively silent revolve, designed by Julie Fox and Joshua Quinlan, and a whole second storey built into the typically single-level Guloien Theatre, as well as a sound design by Ryan Borshuk that ensures everyone is heard and lyrics don’t get lost.
But many of the technical byproducts of the ambition that makes Crow’s so reliably exceptional also pose real challenges in a show as demanding as this one. The revolve, silent though it is, has to be pushed by the actors, and it’s used so frequently that it often becomes distracting. The revolve also takes up precious real estate that the production can’t really afford to lose. Stagehands move and remove a heavy velvet couch multiple times, and it pulls focus from the stage action in each instance. Audiences are also crammed into every cranny of Crow’s, including the new balcony, which is doubly used as playing space: I’d argue the immersivity of those six-or-so seats should have been scrapped in favour of using the balcony solely for the actors.
And those actors are working hard – in some cases, harder than they need to. While Gillis can handle running laps around the revolve before delivering Natasha’s luminous solo, “No One Else,” she shouldn’t have to. These are some of the best performers Toronto has to offer, and they’re in fine form here. And yet, after sprinting from corner to corner, gallivanting up and down stairs, and executing Ray Hogg’s boisterous choreography before singing, the exhaustion is palpable: one wonders what might have been gained by a few more strategically placed moments of stillness.
There’s a quiet moment at the conclusion of the show that may disappoint audiences who saw the Rachel Chavkin-directed Broadway production. That titular comet poses a tricky technical riddle: should it be literal? Or, as on Broadway, perhaps a chandelier that keeps getting brighter and brighter until the final button of the score? Here, Abraham and lighting designer Kimberly Purtell have opted to insert an omnipresent glowing hoop onto the set’s second level, meaning the element of surprise offered by the final breaths of Bradley King’s Tony Award-winning lighting is gone. Though Purtell’s lighting is elsewhere excellent as usual – she masters the club lighting demanded by the EDM-soundtracked moments of the story – I was underwhelmed by that last image.
I find myself comparing the Canadian premiere of Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 to the caviar the ensemble sings about in the show’s prologue. The production is frequently marvellous, and oozes with luxury in its trimmings and performances. But the show itself, as well as its direction, won’t be for everyone. This production won me over to Malloy’s score – I’ll admit I was a certified hater after hearing it on Broadway in 2017 – but what’s stuck with me is the work of the individuals onstage and in the booth, rather than the end product of the collective.
Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 runs at Crow’s Theatre until January 28. Tickets are available here.
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