Natasha, Pierre, and The Great Comet --- Review by Shauna Evans

(Note: Shauna Evans is guest writing Beth's Books this week. Evans, a Special Education teacher at the Schor Middle School in Piscataway is known for her long time column with the on-line magazine, Examiner, where she reviewed the television phenomenon “American Idol” for several years. Now working on her first young adult novel, Evans was a theater major at Montclair State University before becoming a teacher)

Int: a blur. The camera comes on and is jarring immediately, spinning in circles that produce red and gold spirals. The atmosphere is loud. Music plays, sounding drunk, discordant, and fun. The viewer dizzies quickly. The camera stops moving, but the interior continues to spin. It slows gradually, and then there are circles of people, some dressed in formal military attire, some with bright green hair, leather jackets, and nose rings. Some clap. Two girls with braided pigtails dance around while playing accordions. There is a lot of wild singing.

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The camera pans out to reveal a large audience watching this scene unfold. Everyone in the audience holds a small, egg shaped shaker that they use to keep time with the music. Sort of. The costumed people skip around and sing louder. Sheet music flies through the air. The camera finds the face of a good looking young man who is laughing. He holds out a hand to the camera invitingly. The camera pans upwards, and we see chandeliers, like star-bursts, hanging from the ceiling. There are musicians all around.

Hey Balaga! Ho Balaga! Hey ho Balaga!” the costumed crew all sing.

My eyes flew open as I woke suddenly, disoriented, from the strange dream I was having. I stood and stretched, trying to figure out what it was that I had been seeing in my mind. A play? A movie? A speakeasy? I couldn't make heads or tails of it. Later that day, when I arose from my slumber and stood looking in the mirror that sits above my vanity, something resting on the top of my drawers caught my eye. It was a small, gray egg. I walked over to it slowly, my pulse building and beating in my ears.

As I picked up the egg, it rattled, some material inside of it sloshing back and forth. A shaker. I turned it in my hand and saw the words “Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812” printed in red ink across the elaborate design on it.

So I hadn't been dreaming after all.

Which is, in itself, a small miracle. It is miraculous that musicals like The Great Comet exist. I am humbled by the vision that this show presents, by its message, by its artistry, and by the beautiful, simple fact that I live in a time when The Great Comet is this season's most Tony Award Nominated musical. The plot comes from a section of the great Tolstoy novel, War and Peace,the classically long novel that chronicles the lives of members of the Russian aristocracy leading to Napoleon's invasion of the country. To simplify the plot greatly, the young Natasha Rostova is set to marry Prince Andrei Bolkonsky---until she meets the young and notoriously handsome Anatole and decided that she never loved the prince anyway. The monkey wrench in the works is that Anatole, who returns Natasha's attentions and affections immediately, is already married. This is a detail that he leaves out when wooing Natasha. Confusion and scandal ensue.

I've never really understood Russian literature. As a theater major, I read and saw what were considered to be the best translations and productions of Chekhov's works, and I still didn't see the appeal. For pleasure I read Seirgei Lukyanenko's Night Watch, and even the vampires and witches of that emphasize such vastly different values than our own. Russian works seem to be heavy on the themes of life being mundane and miserable, but hey, there's nothing that we can do about that, so shrug your shoulders and move on. This is the opposite side of the American Dream spectrum, which so many of our own works are laden with, and it oftentimes seems defeatist and lacking in fun.

The Great Comet is the first work I've seen that took something Russian and managed to make it fun. The tone is set before the show even starts; as soon as the audience enters the theater, which has been turned into a nontraditional space that enables the actors to interact with the audience throughout. There are seats behind the stage, which is more like a series of catwalks and risers. Audience members line the back walls as well as sit at cafe tables that line said catwalks. The very center of the space has a pit for several orchestra members, though the musicians are also spread out around the theater. Several walkways extend from this center space out into the orchestra and the mezzanine seating. Star-burst style chandeliers stud the ceiling throughout.

Before the show begins, several actors come out onto the catwalks to talk to whatever section of the audience happens to be sitting near them. They pass out empty food containers (because this is Russia, and that's as much as you're going to get), probably to illustrate the items will be passed during the performance. They inform viewers that there will be audience participation, and they encourage everyone to go with it and have fun.

Beyond this, it's hard to explain the production other than to say it is an experience unlike any other I have ever seen. It's full of humor and breaks the fourth wall early---the first number in the show, “Prologue,” urges the audience to look up the characters' relationships to each other, which are printed in the Playbill, since this is based on a long, complicated Russian novel in which everyone has nine different names. The actors continue to burst through metaphorical walls, flirting with audience members, who are seated near them, making them move their chairs aside to make room for stools that actors plop down between them. All of this lends to the humor and the atmosphere of “I don't know what's going on, but I'm completely enchanted by the whole mess.”

And the whole thing is a bit of a mess. It's confusing. Main characters are referred to by multiple names. The show is an operetta, and lines are sometimes difficult to hear, making the action even more unclear. The music is strange, often discordant and slightly unpleasant, particularly in sections leading from one song to another. But this mess is a beautiful one, depicting a vision for a new direction in which musical theater can march.

This new vision is bold and fearless. It invites audience members to watch the spectacle of operatic singing, stunning period costumes, and the strobe lights of a club while at the other times participating in the show itself. It gives out its own souvenirs that the audiences can use to keep time with the orchestra (I wasn't kidding aboiut those shakers!). It blesses us with the voice of newcomer Denee Benton, who rendition of the aria “No One Else” moved me to tears with its ease, grace and levity in the first half of Act I, Lucas Steele, who delivers the role of Anatole with bravado and a seriously stunning tenor, and Josh Groban. Being in the presence of Josh Groban's voice is worth the ticket price alone.

But when Groban leaves on July 2, don't let that be an excuse to skip this show. Don't let the fact that it's weird be an excuse. Don't let the fact that I'm not sure if I would listen tot he soundtrack on its own without the spectacularly visual performance keep you away. Embrace all of these things. Embrace change and oddity and the entire shebang. These are the reasons why The Great Comet was written and exists and must be seen

“ . . . When we fall in love we wake up,” Josh Groban's Pierre sings towards the end of Act I. See The Great Comet and allow yourself to fall in love with it. Wake up from the traditional view of musical theater to a dream of the new direction that it can move in with musicals like this in the forefront of innovative theater in the 21st century.