Review: NATASHA, PIERRE, AND THE GREAT COMET OF 1812 At Streetcar Crowsnest

NATASHA, PIERRE AND THE GREAT COMET OF 1812 is a performance that feels like a party nobody wants to leave.

By: Feb. 02, 2024
Review: NATASHA, PIERRE, AND THE GREAT COMET OF 1812 At Streetcar Crowsnest

NATASHA, PIERRE AND THE GREAT COMET OF 1812 is a performance that feels like a party nobody wants to leave. Extended for the nth time at Crow’s Theatre (now until March 3rd), if there’s one thing this show is good at, it’s keeping the revelry going. The musical is based on a section of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, but it’s anything but staid and traditional. In the midst of war, death, and constrained social circumstances, in fact, it’s enormously successful in feeling like a celebration of life. In director Chris Abraham’s production, the passionate performances, zippy humour, pounding music and fabulous visuals will likely keep you captivated from beginning to end, but Dave Molloy’s libretto might have you exiting the ball missing a single shoe, a whisper of the haunting feeling that the show could be more than the sum of its party.

The reworked stage at Crow’s Theatre adds significantly to the festive atmosphere, recalling the grand opera that the characters attend that causes massive intrigue; set designers Julie Fox and Joshua Quinlan have created a fantastic Faberge box. The room has been oriented so the audience sits on three sides, turned into a ballroom with a raised platform in the middle that spins like it’s part of Les Misérables, which assists the viewer in feeling the constant, dizzying motion of the plot. The band perches upstairs on a three-sided catwalk, practically springing from the railings, as some audience members mingle alongside them.

The audience stretches from catwalk to stage floor, immersive seating that’s perfect for surrounding yourself with the action, and for occasional gags where a performer picks up a cell phone in puzzlement (they don’t exist yet), or flirts with a very willing participant or two. The stands aren’t free from audience participation, either; you might wind up with an egg-shaped shaker in your hand, or an accordion in your face.

At the back, there’s a shining, circular hoop of light, very similar to Fox’s design for Abraham’s Much Ado at Stratford last year. (Perhaps it’s a callback or a clever bit of stage recycling, as both of these shows centred on societal expectations and constraints on women getting married.) The shining ring functions as a mirror to the stifling, navel-gazing, and status-based world these characters live in and as the comet featured in the title, which brings up themes of the cyclic return and our hope for something bigger than ourselves.

But what’s bigger than war and peace?

In this section of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Natasha (Hailey Gillis) and her best friend/cousin Sonya (Camille Eanga-Salenge) travel to Moscow to live with loving but stern aunt Marya D. (Louise Pitre). Young, naïve and beautiful, used to being loved by everyone she meets, Natasha desires acceptance from her betrothed Prince Andrey’s (Marcus Nance) family. Instead, she’s faced with frustration, as Andrey’s father Bolkonsky (also Nance, giving a brilliantly crotchety performance as the angry, vain old man) and sister Mary (Heeyun Park, who gets more winsome the more she feel’s she’s losing her status and agency) immediately rankle at her presence. It seems that it might be a simple case of girl having to prove her worth to the uptight upper class.

Instead, as the chorus sings, “Natasha loves Andrey/But Andrey isn’t here.” In Andrey’s absence, Natasha’s introduction to the glitz and glamour of Moscow comes with an introduction to the charming and handsome Anatole (George Krissa), f-boy extraordinaire, whose fixation on her threatens to destroy her upcoming marriage and everything she knows about herself. Anatole’s sister, brassy diva Hélène (Divine Brown), unapologetically scorching hot in her bluesy showpiece numbers and wicked flirtations with her own brother, is unhappily married to the titular Pierre. Bored and lonely, she encourages the lovers’ drama to amuse herself. Finally, Evan Buliung’s Pierre, a portrait of self-loathing over his failure to enlist in the ongoing war, is at first ignorant of and then shocked by the way things have altered under his nose while he mourns, thinks, and pours drinks.

It’s a complicated piece of business, simplified by Malloy’s book and lyrics, which assign broad, clear characteristics to each character in the opening song and let the party explode from there.

And, again, what a party it is. The dynamite cast and orchestra practically explode into the audience, with a variety of song styles from folk to rave. The pivotal opera scene is a fascinating miasma of LED lights (lighting designer Kimberly Purtell), hauntingly veiled period costumes (Ming Wong’s designs are sumptuous), and eyes meeting across a crowded room while the music whirls around them.

The energy captured by the wilder numbers, including the opening and a later scene that’s half kidnapping, half bacchanal, is a wonder to behold. Krissa’s Anatol turns the charisma up to 11, leaving the audience no doubt as to why a young woman would wave a white flag in the face of it instead of seeing all the red ones. Gillis as the young woman in question is triumphant, flitting between ingenue and powerhouse as the scene requires, and Buliung plays up his moody isolation until he finally finds a fleeting moment of connection with the titular woman he remembers as an innocent child. In a smaller role, Andrew Penner as Balaga occasionally steals the show as a troubled troubadour of a friend who wryly comments on the action like a quasi-narrator.

The power of the fast, splashy numbers is so all-encompassing that it almost makes you overlook that the writers are trying to have their cake and eat it too, going for a party that also hits heights of emotion and philosophical thought. It strives for Sondheim, offering pointed references to some of his shows, such as when Pierre cries, “I’m ready!” in shades of Company’s “Being Alive.”

But the lesson the show could stand to learn actually comes from Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which was a flop in tryouts until the issue was traced to how the opening number set the show’s tone as a light romance when it was really a farce. When Sondheim changed “Love Is In the Air” to “Comedy Tonight,” Forum’s box office receipts and reception soared. NATASHA’s opening number is a “Comedy Tonight”-style farce, and that tone sets the heights of the show, but also runs into a snag when the farce tries to get serious.

At these points, Molloy attacks the emotional beats in the same way he attacks everything else, going straight to the fever pitch. While this works magnificently in the carnival, it forgets the fact that we have to really know a character before a big, emotional song of realization is going to land at its best. Even so, I found myself interested in the psychology of the characters, such as Natasha’s rationalization that the actions that are associated with love can only occur if love is present, or Pierre’s struggle with the difference between thought and action, but I longed to explore those ideas in moments where things weren’t instantly turned up to 11.

Our exploration isn’t helped a lot by the stretches of exposition, which is also a little muffled by the relentless sound mixing. For example, a damning fact about a character that was mentioned in the first act was greeted by loud gasps in the second from the half of the audience that didn’t hear it the first time. As well, the choice to have the characters narrate their emotions and actions in the third person rather than express them in performance is a very faithful nod to the novel, but one that puts up another wall between character and viewer.

All this, however, feels a little like complaining you were served too much at a feast for the senses. In the end, NATASHA, PIERRE, AND THE GREAT COMET OF 1812 is magnificent fun, a comet with an ever-lengthening tail that burns brightly against the sky. Call it Tolstoyriffic.

Cast Photo by Dahlia Katz