Review of Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 at Webster University

    Last weekend at Webster University, the production shone as brightly as the title event in Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812. The staging by the Sargent Conservatory of Theatre Arts was extraordinary.

    The musical by Dave Malloy is based on the section of Tolstoy’s War and Peace in which the title characters’ lives first intersect. Natasha Rostova is an aristocratic young woman who is newly engaged to Andrey Bolkonsky. While he is off fighting in the war against Napoleon, she is spending the winter in Moscow with her godmother.

    Pierre is an awkward, wealthy aristocrat who is searching for the meaning of his life. He is married to Hélène Bezukhova, who actively seeks romance outside her marriage. Her brother, Anatole Kuragin, is a libertine who turns Natasha’s head and leads her to ruin. Pierre gives hope to the traumatized Natasha in the wake of a scandal. In the process, he finds what he is looking for.

    Malloy’s music and the blunt, snappy words are contemporary. The present-day idiom gives great immediacy to the emotions expressed in the songs. The Webster staging was rooted in the past, however, by the characters’ manners and bearing and by the splendid work of the design team. The production’s ability to harmonize its historical and modern elements was one of its great strengths.

    Anabel Weiland’s costumes were socially aware and lavish when appropriate. Rebecca Mack’s wig and makeup designs included a wig with big white curls that cleverly turned a young actor into a comical old man. Pierre’s duel with pistols was excitingly choreographed by Jack Kalan.

    At the center rear of Lily Tomasic’s scenic design was an imposing doorway at the rear of an elegant, flexible performance space. Spencer Roe-Weaver’s lighting and Katelyn Gillette’s sound added substantially to the ambience.

    The show’s premiere was in an Off-Broadway theater that had been altered to look like a Russian supper club. Actors played some of the instruments, and the audience was immersed in the action. The Webster production retained some of the Off-Broadway staging’s immediacy by employing roving musicians who sometimes ventured into the aisles and the front row of seats. The score was irresistible under music director Tali Allen.

    The sung-through show’s music and movement were at one in Michael Baxter’s masterly direction. Ellen Isom’s choreography fused astonishing energy with unwavering discipline. The big numbers were dazzling.

    The cast was a superb company of singing actors. Every portrayal was finely characterized and totally committed. The performers were:

    Daisy HeldNatasha Rostova
    Will HancockPierre Bezukhov
    TJ StatenAnatole Kuragin
    Elise CoganMarya Dmitriyevna
    Vera BrownSonya Rostova
    Remi MarkHélène Bezukhova
    Collin MilfortFedya Dolokhov
    Isaiah HenryAndrey Bolkonsky / Old Prince Bolkonsky
    Parnassus FunkPrincess Mary Bolkonskaya / Maidservant / Natasha cover
    Drew BatesBalaga / Various Servants / Pierre cover
    Crayton HaneyReveler / Roving Accordion
    Otto KlempReveler / Roving Clarinet
    Elijah ParuzynskiReveler / Roving Guitar / Andrey and Bolkonsky cover
    Marilyn WilsonReveler / Roving Guitar
    Daniela RodriguezReveler / Roving Violin / Sonya and Mary cover
    Aliyah JacobsReveler / Roving Ukelele
    Mia Rose PerrittReveler / Marya Cover
    Lillian CooperReveler
    Wylie GodleskiReveler / Dolokhov Cover
    Reilly Jane GraceReveler
    Bryson SandsReveler
    Alex DaspitReveler / Anatole and Balaga cover

    At present Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 is available for licensing only by educational institutions and professional theatres. This restriction is understandable. The show is a huge undertaking. The brilliance of the Webster production is an enormous tribute to the students and the training at the Sargent Conservatory.

    —Gerry Kowarsky

    Photo by Phillip Hamer Photography
    From the left, Will Hancock as Pierre and Daisy Held as Natasha.