BWW Blog: Alyssa Sileo - Madly In Love: The Blazing, Immersive Genius of THE GREAT COMET
Valentine's Day came a tad late for this historical-theatre devotee, but there is no home for disdain in my heart after a day like February 18th.
The Ars Nova production of rock opera Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, playing at Broadway's Imperial Theatre, is a love letter to all the beauteous things immersive theatre allows ingenious artists to have-at. Brecht's back in this audacious piece that leads the ensemble to delight in the audience many a time. These bolides of performers are not afraid to get in your face and test your boundaries, as they rollick and leap on every impulse their beloved cast members bounteously dole out. And you'll eventually find that you'll be blessing them for this invasion of space, because by the last accordion squeeze, you've been woken up to the exorbitant wonder that can pour from regarding a brick of a classic book, War and Peace, as something adaptable into forbiddenly amorous theatre.
The massive and braiding story of Comet can be outlined as one young girl's arrival to 1812 Moscow and departure from innocence. Engaged to war-bound Andrey, but in love with womanizer Anatole, she navigates this new world of broken vows, secrets, and tribulations of living privately amongst a gossipy Moscow.
Dave Malloy assembles a book and score from Volume 2, Book 5 of Leo Tolstoy's 1869 tome that enlivens, devastates, and fascinates; moments of every flavor are aptly communicated chord by chord. There is not one minute lacking the expressive, emblematic magic of the onstage orchestra. The direction of Comet is remarkably generous and energetic, keeping a pace that revives the audience. Rachel Chavkin is, before our eyes, setting the theatre scene in motion, ruffling any feathers of the pretentious notion that theatre should always satisfy. But, rather, as seen in Comet, theatre should alarm, should discomfort, should bewilder, and should sometimes scorch.
The first percolating moments of the ensemble's harmonies in the "Prologue" stupefies the audience and binds us to this epic. The haunting and jolting emoting sticks to your ears. Their crooning and following exclamations play chutes and ladders with the audiences' emotions; every single principal's voice, a mind of its own, chronicles another timeline and attitude of a story that ensnares so many characters' involvement. The orchestration and the cast are one, audibly and literally, as members of the cast are playing guitar, accordion, violin, and percussion onstage.
The onstage musicians are brash, flirting and carousing (I hit it off with accordion player Mary Spencer Knapp, or at least I like to think I did.) The individual performances of artists like Gelsey Bell (Princess Mary), Brittain Ashford (Sonya), Nick Choksi (Dolokhov) weave a vocal aesthetic identifiable by super analysis- they're tableaus that immediately communicate character. Mary's sadness is soulfully sung by Bell, Sonya's goodness is exuded from Ashford's pluvial tones, and Dolokhov's sleaziness sneaks out of Choksi's smirking voice.
The notable performance of Grace McLean sent me into giggle fits, as the grand dame and godmother Marya D has been one of my dream roles. Her haughty scoffs bring hilarity to the heavy story, but she is not without her moments of intensity. Denée Benton's Natasha is beautifully amiss of the maturity and charm of the older Moscow women, and her crystalline naivety marks all of her discoveries of what a pretty girl can be capable of. She especially displays an arrogant side of Natasha that I had not caught in the recording. Lucas Steele's Anatole is dangerously lovable and alluring, despite all of his character's evils and gross sentiments. His careening and daring possession of the space is captivating--we all loved Anatole, and we couldn't do a darn thing about it. I was most pleasantly surprised about Josh Groban's Pierre; I've always adored Dave Malloy's rendition on the Ars Nova recording. But Groban brings out a nerdy side of Pierre I hadn't noticed before, which very nicely kept him endearing. We root for this shut-in victim to the anxieties and confusion of a war-torn world. (Plus, seeing the show with my mom, a big fan of Groban, was an experience of its own. Who knew she would see him one day in a show that her daughter and, now her, loves?)
My little adulating heart still can't get over Amber Gray, one of my favorite actresses. I saw her brilliant Persephone in the Chavkin-directed Hadestown at New York Theatre Workshop last May (I've been a fan of the writer, Anaïs Mitchell, for years.) I'm pretty sure the first words out of my mouth when my mom surprised me with the Comet tickets this Christmas was "I get to see Amber in another Chavkin again!" Gray's Hélène broke my heart- she strikingly portrays a woman wound in a fearful design that abuses her suavity and conscience. Every time I watch Gray, I see how pertinent it is for a theatre artist to be affected by all that goes on over the course of the story.
I see a trend in these Chavkin pieces- not a single voice in these ensembles are typical Broadway. Not a single face of these ensembles are typical Broadway. And raise a glass to these visionary figures, and may every theatre god keep them in the city. (And to think- having another cast album in addition to the rightfully marvelous Ars Nova recording is a special kind of heaven.)
Furthermore adding to this piece's earnestness, Chavkin's direction prompts extreme depictions of every moment as high-stakes. This choice, often considered a theatre-sin, actually aids the story. The sometimes fantastical responses of the ensemble lets us know that we're not observing any ordinary love story. Frankly, at face value, the plot of Comet is nothing new--love, scandal, and secrets--but we are not looking through ordinary lens. As demonstrated by the intense strobe lights of the club, the jungle-gym-like wassailing about the rails and staircases, and the shrinking of all of Moscow into one theatre, we are in a very decadent part of town that turns their eyes away from any sign of consequence. We are watching a daze, concluded so from the stream-like movements from scene to scene, but this trance has strange specificity, with its embellished performances. Effusive and without restraint, the ensemble bounds about, conceivable as figments of Natasha's imagination. She's thrusted into a world that's just as new to her as it is to us. We could practically be in an alternate universe, considering Comet's sometimes absurd vignettes. It's unconventional but that doesn't make it wrong. Aren't we all on different wavelengths? Aren't experiences that require us to empathize and go through someone else's motions a little bit disorienting? This is a different kind of true-to-life theatre.
And, just like how the direction beckons the ensemble's replies of varying opinions, Chavkin asks the audience to answer how they may. The bizarre Moscow Opera shown in Act I can appear artful or lewd. The ferociously fun spree in Act II in which the whole ensemble stomps and hollers for a solid five minutes in the name of Anatole's impetuous abduction of his "new pleasure" could delight or dismay or disgust. When theatre challenges the audience to pick a side, but, all the while offering multiple avenues of multiple moralities, we've got a piece that is truly immersive. Theatre has to be affecting and challenging, making us feel a complexity of things.
As a young theatre creator, I have learned that soulmates can be things too. Soulmates can most certainly be stories. I always say there's only ever been two musicals that blew my mind the first instant I pressed play--Drood and this one. From that February 2016 moment, I knew this piece would mean something bigger to me. I'm sending a hello to my past self, from the February-me who just saw Comet and is maybe even more madly in love.
This show has taught me countless lessons about what makes us want to listen to a story. I feel a little immortal as I grow through my theatre journey with Malloy and Chavkin's triumph in my earphones. Hours of wandering through Comet's enthralling course is how I've spent the past year, and joyfully so.
If you want to fall in love, then the Comet is here.
The Great Comet
Have you ever seen a better corner of the world? Four theatres with four great pieces: Significant Other, Come From Away, Hansen, and Comet.
â€‹Wishing on a comet to be in this photo some day...
â€‹The incredible Brittain Ashford of Prairie Empire and Ghost Quartet. She IS Sonya without a doubt.
The sweetheart Gelsey Bell, who brought such a compelling light to Princess Mary.
â€‹â€‹Since was I technically behind the proscenium with my onstage seating, I consider February 18th the first time I stepped on a Broadway stage. I could see the flies and rails above me.