Review: Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 Scales Down Tolstoy’s Masterwork
War and Peace goes pop in new Zach Theatre production
Reviewed by Richard Whittaker, Fri., Feb. 9, 2024
Musicals like Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 are the reason people fear for the state of Broadway. It’s another of those slightly arch works in which the cast explain their emotional states in a setting about which the text and audience can be mildly smug.
That’s not to say that the current Zach Theatre production of Dave Malloy’s 2017 Tony-award-winning electropop opera redux of War and Peace is without fun or charm. This version of Tolstoy’s mighty epic avoids the battlefields and centers instead on the lascivious schemings of the Moscow social set. Greatest attention is paid to Natasha, Russian literature’s most insufferable brat, and Kelly Belarmino suitably captures her childish selfishness and sense of wonder. Even though she is betrothed to Andrey (Hayden Stanes), who we are constantly reminded isn’t here because he is off at war, she becomes infatuated with the roguish and handsome Anatole (an excellently caddish Jackson Mattek).
As with the novel, the only honest player is Pierre, Tolstoy’s proxy in despair at the flaws of Tsarist Russia. Ryan Everett Wood plays him older and more grizzled than in the book, his blend of dissolute carousing and maudlin philosophizing adding both narrative and emotional weight. It makes sense that this Pierre is left to clean up everyone else’s messes, and Wood bursts through the musical’s glibness with grace and pathos.
However, for laughs, nothing exceeds Stanes in his second role as Andrey’s father, the domineering and senile Old Prince. He’s actually pulling treble duty, also appearing as the troika driver Balaga for Comet’s showstopping dance number bearing his name.
But somehow it all feels like two-thirds of a story. It starts with a “previously on ...” style “Prologue” in which the interwoven families of this slice of Moscow’s high society are introduced. It’s the first warning of constant narrative hand-holding, seemingly based on the fear that the audience isn’t capable of keeping up (although, considering how many audience members last Saturday were poring over the illustrated family tree in the program mid-show, maybe that presumption isn’t wrong). Some of that audience is seated onstage at bar tables, a style that has become de rigueur for productions of cabaret that affords some degree of audience interaction. Unfortunately, here it occasionally turns into knowing asides, further reminding the audience that it’s not real. Indeed, Malloy makes his disdain for anything serious obvious with “The Opera.” In Tolstoy’s book, the scene provides insight into young Natasha’s shallow, provincial nature, but Malloy’s book makes it a farce. Zach production director Dave Steakley executes the scene as an expressionistic dumbshow, and that’s hilarious, but little more.
Ultimately, Steakley is fighting to shove Malloy’s Gilbert & Sullivan sensibilities into Tolstoy’s grander, darker work. If only Malloy had embraced Pierre’s earnestness over Anatole’s dismissive self-indulgence, The Great Comet might blaze brighter.
Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812
The Topfer at ZACH Theatre
Through March 3