Review: NATASHA, PIERRE & THE GREAT COMET OF 1812 Reinvents Everything at the Benedum Center

Pittsburgh CLO closes its summer season with this modern masterpiece

By: Aug. 24, 2023
Review: NATASHA, PIERRE & THE GREAT COMET OF 1812 Reinvents Everything at the Benedum Center
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My jaw dropped when I first heard that Pittsburgh CLO would be producing Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812. It's not only the most challenging and avant-garde musical CLO has ever presented, it's arguably one of the most challenging and avant-garde musicals ever produced on Broadway. Dave Malloy's book, music and lyrics adapt the second quarter of War and Peace into a genre-annihliating mix of musical theatre, electro-pop, chamber music and modern classical, all told in a "story theatre" style that shifts past and present tense, first and third person, sometimes midsentence. The plot is convoluted enough that the opening number advises the audience to follow along in their programs. It feels like the recipe for a pretentious hipster indulgence, and maybe on some levels it is. But there is ALSO no denying that the brave, bold, innovative choices Dave Malloy made with his musical have more than earned it a cult status. CLO is coming off a summer of hit after hit, and it was a big risk to program a show this niche, intellectual and just plain different to end the season. Still, based on the roars of audience response on opening night, this big swing has turned into a home run.

Based roughly on the first half of Tolstoy's most famous novel, Great Comet (as it is most commonly called) tells the story of a group of mid-tier Russian aristocrats passing their time in Moscow during the Napoleonic Wars. Dissolute, bored and often hedonistic, the characters are presented in the musical as intentionally analogous to today's B-list celebrities: their lives revolve around seeking pleasure or meaning, keeping their comfortable lifestyles, and seeing or being seen. Scholarly alcoholic Pierre (Nick Rehberger) bankrolls all his friends on their constant misadventures. Meanwhile, naive debutante Natasha (sandra okuboyejo) arrives in Moscow for the first time, eager to be united with her physically and emotionally distant fiancee Andrey (Billy Cohen) and to impress Andrey's dementia-riddled, volatile father the Old Prince (also Billy Cohen). Things are complicated when Pierre's wife Helene (Lili Thomas) and her rakish brother Anatole (Jason Gotay) take a liking bordering on obsession to Natasha, and band together to seduce her. 

Having seen the wonderful, but very different, Broadway version, I can say with some confidence that it would not have played as well at the Benedum as Dontee Kiehn's energetic but more linear production does. Kiehn, along with choreographer Charlie Sutton, has focused the show experience on the narrative rather than merely on vibes and raucous party atmosphere. The storytelling, in music and acting and dance and occasionally assisted by Akhila Krishnan's projection designs, helps the storyline remain clear and engaging at all times. Kiehn's strongest artistic choice is making Andrey a frequently visible but silent presence onstage. We see the Andrey that Natasha has conjured in her mind so frequently throughout the show that when the real Andrey finally returns from the war in Act 2, we feel Natasha's letdown even before she feels it.

Great Comet is an extremely difficult show for actors, singers, dancers and musicians, and the CLO production has united an incredibly versatile and uniformly talented cast to perform it. Nick Rehberger strikes the perfect balance between Pierre's noble qualities and his self-loathing and mental illness. Given that Pierre is a sad sack in the middle of a midlife crisis, he swings from romantic hero to paranoid schizophrenic from scene to scene, and Rehberger's grounded, weary but soulful voice and presence knits Pierre's disparate qualities into a whole. Sanrda Okuboyejo brings an innocent ingenue charm to Act 1 and then a touch of the cynical soubrette to Act 2. Natasha is the perfect foil for Pierre: while he is a jaded cynic who wishes to be more innocent and hopeful again, Natasha is all too innocent but years too early to be worldly-wise and cynical. The two leading actors only share one scene together, but their scene is the heart of the whole show.

Billy Cohen's performance as Andrey and the Old Prince is a masterful look at minimalism amidst maximalism; his use of small physicality to emphasize sudden bursts of larger energy and movement reminds me very much of the stage work of David Bowie circa Elephant Man. There's a moment when Andrey shakes the papers in his hand that visually recalls the Old Prince's tremors; it made me gasp out loud when I saw it. Austen Danielle Bohmer nearly steals Act 1 with her performance as the Old Prince's emotionally downtrodden daughter. As audience favorites Anatole and Helene, Jason Gotay and Lili Thomas are weird sex personified: preening, strutting, cajoling, posing and reveling in the destructive power of their desire. Plus, even in a cast as talent stacked as this one, their powerful and wide-ranging voices cut through the sound and rise above the rest.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't give a shoutout to Jamari Johnson Williams as Balaga. In what may be the musical's most famous/infamous scene, Anatole and his buddies hire a legendary wild man troika driver to be their escort through a night of pre-elopement debauchery. Williams bursts onto the stage from the audience in a frenzy of sound and movement that can only be described as Tasmanian Devil Energy. Performing Balaga as a combination stuntman, breakdancer, party host, male stripper and all around chaotic wrecking ball, during his brief appearance onstage the energy doesn't just go up to eleven, it goes up to at least a sixteen. 

I attended the opening night performance, so I can't vouch for the rest of the run. But based on the strong audience response to the opening performance, I must applaud CLO not only for a great show, but for the faith it expressed in the openmindedness and sophistication of Pittsburgh audiences. May this be the start of a new tradition: five crowd-pleasers and then a taste of something completely different.



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