Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Basking in the glow of The Comet of 1812

I would say I see a fair amount of theatre-- and much of it is great. Beautiful. Wonderful. Masterful.

But once in a while, a theatre piece comes along that is truly special. Something that is less of a show and more of an event. Something a little wilder, a little newer that pushes the boundaries of theatre making. This kind of show is the one that pull you out of your beliefs of what theatre is. It challenges you. It fights you. And in the end, you learn something and appreciate something that you didn't even know existed before. This is a rare event. Almost as rare as a comet, streaking across the sky.

And thus are my feelings about Natasha, Pierre & The Comet of 1812, a dynamite electro-pop opera finishing its extended run this week at Ars Nova. I would tell you that you should absolutely run out and buy a ticket before it closes, but the show has been sold out for a while, so giving such advice would probably just make you feel like I do every time I see an ad for Book of Mormon on television. Still, for those who haven't had the chance to see it (and even for those who have), I thought I would just give a few thoughts about the piece, since I think this is an experience that is hard to replicate but everyone deserves a chance to experience.

Natasha, Pierre & The Comet of 1812 is based on none other than Tolstoy's War and Peace. But lest you think this is some stilted classic left to collect dust on a shelf, this operatic version takes on a life of its own, quickly summarizing multiple characters and modernizing their plights so that you can find some of these countesses and scoundrels making the rounds at the club. The actors move on the bars that snake around the room-- there's no formal stage, rather, the audience is seated at tables which are outfitted with bottles of vodka for everyone to pour at their leisure, along with some vegetarian dumplings (not bad, I must say). You, the audience member, are very much in the fray as old Pierre tries to find himself and young Natasha finds herself... in the arms of a man other than her fiance.

As to be expected, loves are lost and found, characters despair, and hopes and dreams are born as quickly as they are squashed. And while sometimes the dramatic arcs reach a point of melodrama, what separates this rousing musical from many before it can be attributed to Dave Malloy's music, an exciting  blend of pop from the folksy to the techno with subtle Russian influences and the occasional remix over an electric beat. The music shows depth and humor, and the lyrics manage to capture the deep dramatic feelings of the characters while still poking fun at them on occasion.

Photo by Ben Arons

Director Rachel Chavkin creates an atmosphere of warmth and inclusion-- normally I balk at the prospect of audience participation, but I felt strangely at ease even so up close and personal with the action around me. All of the cast delivers excellent performances, and I was riveted throughout. The energy never falters and every moment is performed with such glee and commitment.

This show is truly something special, a reminder of the possibilities of theatre and a justification for why some things just need to be experienced on stage. It was a gorgeous representation of not only great musical theatre, but also great atmosphere and performance-- a chance to come in from the cold and to share in a good story.

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