A musical theatrical bounty for actors-musicians on stage: Pioneer Theatre Company set for Utah premiere of Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812

The idea of turning even a rather small part of Leo Tolstoy’s monumental novel War and Peace into a musical would seem daunting, if not damn near impossible. However, Part 8 of the story, which occurs just before the novel’s midpoint, inspired Dave Malloy to do precisely that. Tolstoy, who achieved the epitome of rich detail in his writing, crafted Part 8 to tell the story of Natasha’s impulsive romance with Anatole, a rogue who has diverted her attention from awaiting the return of her fiancé from the front lines of war, and Pierre, a family friend who collects the pieces of her shattered reputation but who also is searching for the cosmological meaning of his life. Part 8 ends with Pierre watching “the huge, brilliant comet of 1812” in the sky above Prechistensky Boulevard. It is the joyful sign he had been searching for: “It seemed to Pierre that it was in full harmony with what was in his softened and emboldened heart, that had gained vigour to blossom into a new life.”

Justin Luciano, actor and musician, who will play Dolokhov, the unscrupulous army officer and friend of Anatole, in Pioneer Theatre Company’s (PTC) upcoming Utah premiere of Malloy’s musical Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 summarizes the appeal of this peculiar award-winning and Tony-nominated show, which has enchanted international audiences since its 2012 premiere.  “The way that I look at it, this show is structured in a way where the feelings evoked from the music and score are there to guide you through the story and bring you in line with how the characters are feeling, where in a musical it can often feel like the story is the foundation, and the music supports it,” Luciano explained in a written interview to questions from The Utah Review. “So, from an actor’s perspective it’s been really exciting because as we work through the show I feel almost like a detective who’s uncovering more and more depth in the story as we go.”

Justin Luciano, Mary Fanning Driggs, Ginger Bess, Bennett Chew, Kevin Earley, Aleks Pevec, Ali Ewoldt, Edward Juvier, Melanie Fernandez, and Lucy Anders, Natasha, Pierre, and The Great Comet of 1812, by Dave Malloy, directed by Karen Azenberg, Pioneer Theatre Company. Credit: BW Productions.

When the show opens May 10 at the Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, Utah audiences will notice that eight actors in the production, directed by Karen Azenberg, also will be musicians on stage. They include a mother and daughter.

In a written interview, The Utah Review asked four of the actor-musicians to talk about the unique experiences of performing in Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. Mary Fanning Driggs, an accordionist who plays the character of Marya, said, “I’ve done other sung-through musicals, and I’ve done another musical where the actors played instruments,” she explained.  “But this musical being an ‘electropop opera’ (a description by its composer Dave Malloy) makes it very unique. I sometimes feel like I’m just plucking notes out of nowhere!”

Growing up in a family with music having a prominent place in their lives, Driggs started college with an oboe scholarship, but she soon gave that up to pursue musical theater. A voice teacher for nearly 40 years and “a Suzuki mom for about 25 years,” as she described it, Driggs has seen all of her six children play instruments and sing. This includes her daughter Faith, who plays violin and viola and is part of the stage ensemble for the PTC production. 

Ginger Bess, Aleks Pevec, Kevin Earley, and Justin Luciano, Natasha, Pierre, and The Great Comet of 1812, by Dave Malloy, directed by Karen Azenberg, Pioneer Theatre Company. Credit: BW Productions.

The younger Driggs started violin when she was six, and her career has included teaching orchestra at the elementary school level as well as playing in several symphonies. “For me, I think I kept up with the violin because it brings me a lot of joy,” she explained. “My family is also awesome and they all support me so much when it comes to being in this show and being involved in music in general. It’s also such a cool motivation when I’m doing it alongside my mom, it’s so amazing she can guide me in this and that I have the opportunity to be a part of something this cool with her.” 

Along with Luciano, Faith Driggs said the show number she is looking forward to performing is Balaga, which features the driver of the troika who assists Anatole in eloping with Natasha.  Driggs added, “the use of dissonant harmonies, third person lyrics, instruments on stage, and electronic music tracks gives so much character and depth to the show.”

Another ensemble member, clarinetist Troy Valjean Rucker, has worked with Malloy on another world premiere of the composer’s works.  “In that show, like this one, the score represents many different styles. I love what that musical diversity brings to the storytelling and helping to define each character and their journey,” Rucker said. “As a performer I believe everything starts with honesty. So, no matter the stylistic differences you have to start with the truth. There is no spoken dialogue or real breaks within the show until you get to the end of each act. The train doesn’t stop moving. Much of the information, especially with this being a sung-through musical, is right there in the music. If you’re really listening to what’s supporting the words it will show you where you’re going emotionally.” 

Aleks Pevec and Ali Ewoldt, Natasha, Pierre, and The Great Comet of 1812, by Dave Malloy, directed by Karen Azenberg, Pioneer Theatre Company. Credit: BW Productions.

Likewise, both Mary and Faith Driggs are enjoying the musical challenge, because, as Mary explained, “having the songs provide emotional narrative doesn’t excuse me from doing the emotional work of my character.” Her daughter added, “I’m used to telling a story when I’m playing a classical piece of music through changing my style, dynamics, and body language, now I just have to add lyrics and choreography.”

The musicians appreciate the bounty that Malloy has composed for the score. Luciano added that “having a score that guides you through the show with the level of detail that Great Comet has is rare, and it’s such a fun way to work for me.” Luciano, who was a  musician before becoming an actor, always connects strongly to a show’s score. One of his favorites is The Light in the Piazza, a 2003 show with music and lyrics by Adam Guettel and book by Craig Lucas. “It has such a magnificent, soaring score that frames the story and the characters in such a rich way,” Luciano added. “I don’t know that I’ve ever been more moved by a musical, and that’s due to the deep humanity that is on display in every moment of the show.”

As for Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812, Luciano said, “This score is so complex and there are so many layers to it, so in a way the music does a lot of the heavy lifting for us, which frees us up to be able to explore the nuances and details of the characters and the story more right from the get-go.”

Kevin Earley and Ali Ewoldt, Natasha, Pierre, and The Great Comet of 1812, by Dave Malloy, directed by Karen Azenberg, Pioneer Theatre Company. Credit: BW Productions.

As noted previously, both mother and daughter in the Driggs family came to music early in their formative years. Luciano was playing piano by the time he was nine years old and then learned drums, guitar and eventually took up voice lessons. “Even thinking back to my earliest memories, I would always walk around with my Walkman and headphones on,” he added. “I had a connection to music right from then, and my love for it hasn’t changed since. So studying music as part of my career was seemingly always in the cards for me, and I don’t see that love and study of music ever going away for me.”

Before acting and voice lessons, Rucker took up the alto saxophone when he was 10, “because I thought saxophones looked and sounded cool and I wanted to play like Kenny G,” he explained. Like Mary Driggs, Rucker took up oboe in high school as his main instrument, and performed in many ensembles including the Detroit Symphony Civic Orchestra (the training orchestra of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra). At the same time, he was performing and training as an actor with Detroit’s Mosaic Youth Theatre, and he recalled that “high school was a very intense time juggling my music and acting endeavors with my academic requirements.” In college, Rucker thought about becoming a conductor and then switched to acting. “But it has all come full circle,” he explained. “About half of the work I’ve done in the theater has been actor-musician shows (plays and musicals where the actors play instruments).”

Aleks Pevec, Ginger Bess, Melanie Fernandez, Kevin Earley and Ali Ewoldt, Natasha, Pierre, and The Great Comet of 1812, by Dave Malloy, directed by Karen Azenberg, Pioneer Theatre Company. Credit: BW Productions.

One of the most requested shows by PTC audience members, the musical features a cast of 20, including the eight onstage actor-musicians. Leading the cast are Kevin Earley as Pierre and Ali Ewoldt as Natasha. Aleks Pevec is Anatole. Other cast members include Lucy Anders as Princess Mary and opera singer; Ginger Bess as Hélène; Lenny Daniel as Ensemble, Dance Captain, and associate director; Edward Juvier playing dual roles of Balaga and Bolkonsky; and Tyler Symone and James Wong as ensemble members. In addition to Luciano and Rucker, making their respective PTC debuts are Melanie Fernandez as Sonya, Evan K. Beesley as ensemble and violin, Bennett Chew as Andrey and opera singer, Alison Hagen as ensemble and accordion, Cameron Nies as ensemble and guitar, Natalie Ruthven as ensemble and Jazmin Viquez as ensemble and violin.

During the production run which will continue through May 25, PTC will present Pierre’s Parlor, a pop-up experience, in the lobby featuring specialty bites (provided by University of Utah Catering Service Chartwells) and themed mocktails (provided by PTC) for purchase. Pierre’s Parlor will be open one-hour prior to each performance. Also included in the experience is Nothing Bundt Cakes, which will be onsite with products for sale before every performance (except for May 11).BIX Bakery & Cafe and Saffron Valley will be onsite for the May 10 opening.

For tickets and more information, see the PTC website.

Leave a Reply