Gobsmacking and dazzling: Pioneer Theatre Company’s Utah premiere of Dave Malloy’s Natasha, Pierre, and The Great Comet of 1812 wows opening night audience

The electropop opera Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812 draws the audience into the stage action in ways unlike conventional experiences with musical theater. Take, for example, the rapid-fire exuberance of the Act II sequence comprising Balaga, The Abduction and In My House

On opening night for Pioneer Theatre Company’s (PTC) Utah premiere production of Dave Malloy’s splendid musical, the audience members roared their approval during this entire sequence, only to realize soon after they had been urging on the story’s most disheartening events: Anatole’s scheme to abduct Natasha, which later would become her downfall. Malloy’s formula for his sung-through musical achieves the desired effect, as the audience giddily took the bait, wholly transfixed by the sumptuous staging and the pure joy of watching dancers displaying their athleticism in the aisles to go along with the bopping, thumping music and exhilarating lyrics. It is a fascinating bit of how crowd psychology can operate in the world of theatrical performance.

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

Directed by Karen Azenberg, PTC’s production of Malloy’s deft adaptation of a small section of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace is gobsmacking in every measure. Presented in the Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, the dazzling production caps a momentous and history-making 61st season for PTC, which included christening its second performing venue (Meldrum Theatre), designed for chamber theater productions.

This show is entirely driven by music and the cast stepped up magnificently to Malloy’s complex artistic demands. The cast includes eight actor-musicians, as noted in The Utah Review preview, as well as the principals who put their vocal chops to the test, with marvelous results. The pit orchestra, led by Phil Reno, sailed through the amalgam of music styles and genres Malloy drew upon for the score, including rock, folk, jazz, pop, opera, electronic and dance. In song after song, the actors extracted the gifts of Malloy’s novel approach to lyrics, which were crafted to preserve as much as feasibly possible the integrity of Tolstoy’s text. In the annotated libretto from 2016 for the musical, Malloy explained why this was critical to the creative brief of bringing Tolstoy’s words to the stage: “He is such a master both of describing characters’ inner monologues and expressing their feelings through minute physical details (bare arms, glittering eyes), and I did not want adapting the text to sacrifice his language and style. This narrative technique also helps invite the audience inside the story, as these lines are usually given directly to audience members.” 

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

The company excels in manifesting this creative objective. Malloy’s adaptation incorporates Tolstoy’s story (Part 8 in the novel) of Natasha’s (Ali Ewoldt) impulsive romance with Anatole (Aleks Pevec), a rogue who has diverted her attention from awaiting the return of Andrey (Bennett Chew), her fiancé, from the front lines of war, and Pierre (Kevin Earley), a family friend who collects the pieces of her shattered reputation but who also is searching for the cosmological meaning in his troubled life. Part 8 ends with Pierre watching “the huge, brilliant comet of 1812,” which symbolizes his epiphany of renewal. 

Traditional musical storylines often feature two couples. While The Great Comet of 1812 has Natasha and Anatole as one couple, the second couple is Pierre, to quote Malloy, “and…God? Himself? Humanity? Natasha? So there was that existential throughline, and the fact that these two disparate stories only intersect at the end, flipping the story around in the last moments.”

Edward Juvier and company, Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812, by Dave Malloy, directed by Karen Azenberg, Pioneer Theatre Company. Photo Credit: BW Productions.

This sets up the scaffold for situating the narrative in a stream of consciousness, which is sung by the characters. The exception is the Prologue, where the company cast immediately mesmerized the audience with the exposition, which familiarized the audience with the characters and the setting of early 19th century Moscow. However, from that point, virtually every song flows from an organic conversational structure that tosses aside rhyming scenes to allow the actors to sing their interior monologues. As one of the actors-musicians, clarinetist Troy Valjean Rucker, explained in The Utah Review preview, “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.” There are consistently smart creative choices in PTC’s staging that obviously worked because the audience responded energetically as well as emotionally to the characters throughout the performance.  

There are many exceptional moments. From an early point in the Prologue, Ewoldt as Natasha and Melanie Fernandez as Sonya, her cousin, distill their differences: Natasha embraces her youthful beauty and prizes her relationship to Andrey while Sonya strives to be Natasha’s best friend and is committed to doing the proper things in their friendship. Natasha is absorbed with the idea of romance, frustrated and anxious that her fiancé is far away, on the frontlines of war, while Sonya stays in the immediate moment, focused on keeping her cherished friendship with Natasha as secure as possible. 

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

Later in the first act, Ewoldt does an excellent job with Natasha’s solo song, No One Else, an operatic-style aria about her yearning for Andrey’s return and her melodramatic sentiment that “I’ll never be this happy again/ You and I/And no one else.” Natasha’s extravagant notions will make her vulnerable to committing mistakes in the realm of romance. Meanwhile, Sonya is grounded in practicalities about such matters, as evidenced in the song Sonya & Natasha. With Fernandez’s spot-on rendering, Sonya worries that Natasha’s attraction to Anatole does not make good sense, especially when she has known Anatole for just a few days. Natasha feels like that she has “loved him a hundred years,” and she beseeches Sonya to support her and understand. Sonya says that she will not do so, as she bursts into tears. But, she also will not abandon Natasha: “I will stand in the dark for you/I will hold you back by force/I will stand here right outside your door/ I won’t see you disgraced/I will protect your name and your heart/Because I miss my friend.”

Some of the show’s finest moments arrive in Kevin Earley’s poignantly contoured portrayal of Pierre. It was with Pierre’s material that Malloy made the greatest changes after the show’s world premiere (Malloy performed the role of Pierre then). When the show was set for its Broadway premiere and Josh Groban, whose star status boosted the musical’s marketing stock when he was tapped to play Pierre, Malloy composed Dust and Ashes. This song, which immediately follows The Duel, explores Pierre’s emotional inner sanctum. With Natasha’s No One Else, Pierre’s Dust and Ashes completes the thematic link between the characters, which sets up their eventual interaction in the second act. In Pierre, the song that follows the Prologue in a dramatic flip of mood, Pierre laments his seemingly incurable emptiness: “It’s dawned on me suddenly/And for no obvious reason/ That I can’t go on/Living as I am.” 

Melanie Fernandez and Justin Luciano, Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812, by Dave Malloy, directed by Karen Azenberg, Pioneer Theatre Company. Photo Credit: BW Productions.

With Dust and Ashes, Earley is eloquent in exposing Pierre’s vulnerabilities to the spotlight, diving deep into contemplating Pierre’s existential crises while giving the audience a good bit of emotional space (the song lasts a shade under seven minutes) to reflect and process the whirlwind of events in the first act. Bold for its poetic and existential expressions about depression and anxiety, Dust and Ashes is a masterly composed contemplation. Then, the remainder of the first act resumes the fast pace and barrels on with Sunday Morning, Charming and The Ball. The kinetic energy stays as strong in the audience as it is with the cast and musicians. 

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

But, it is the last sections of the second act that are the most moving, as the story pulls the characters and the audience at a more deliberate pace to the show’s final uplifting moment, when the comet streaks across the sky above Moscow’s Prechistensky Boulevard. Earley shapes the poetic impact exquisitely in song, telling us how time has suddenly frozen long enough for him to appreciate the epiphany of witnessing this “bright star/ Having traced its parabola/ With inexpressible speed/ Through immeasurable space.” In a show that bristles at speeds with barely any moments to slow down enough for everyone to catch their breath in this two-and-a-half-hour cosmological journey, The Great Comet’s ending is singularly stirring. 

PTC’s production of Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812 is a theatrical banquet, served as a postmodern musical satisfying in its exhilarating impact. Many PTC audience members clamored for bringing this show to Utah and the production delivers far more than the anticipated outcome. The run continues through May 25. For tickets and more information, see the Pioneer Theatre Company website

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