Tolstoy’s War and Peace has long been acknowledged as one of the greatest novels of all time. However, it’s also notoriously difficult to get through, even for the most seasoned readers. That’s really too bad considering there are some especially juicy parts in the story. In particular, there’s a 70-page slice-of-1812-life centered around the beautiful Natasha and her ill-fated love affair with the handsome-but-devious Anatole. It is this small but intriguing section on which Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, a rock opera conceived by Dave Malloy, is based. And, whether you’ve read Tolstoy’s tale or only pretended to read it, you can now enjoy this part of the story at Theatre Raleigh. TR’s production, directed to perfection by Tim Seib, is visually stunning, cheeky, and incredibly unique.
There are no curtains to open on this show. Instead, viewers are ushered into a room and set all around Benedict R. Fancy’s panoramic set. Inspired both by smoky clubs and the streets of 1800s Moscow, it’s a functional masterpiece that allows audience members to look everywhere all at once . . . and look they will. From the moment the first character steps on stage, this show roars to life and never lets up. Seib’s direction is purposefully busy, creating a unique experience for every viewer, every time. There is always somewhere to look or someone’s expression to scope out, which creates an immersive experience on multiple levels.
Of course, while the senses are being bombarded, there’s also a story going on, and it’s a complex one. Fortunately, a troupe of singers open the show with a hilarious song that attempts to explain the “complicated Russian novel” and the “characters with nine different names.” And, if that’s not enough, the program carefully lists out character descriptions and even a scene-by-scene explanation of the plot. This serves as a nice reference for viewers who easily get lost in the shuffle or who become distracted by the production’s many visual appeals. Surprisingly, though, the story is fairly easy to keep up with. That’s because it’s largely based on very human themes. Anyone can understand young Natasha’s (Manna Nichols) infatuation for the arrogant Anatole (Andrew Wade) and Pierre’s (David Toole) misplaced (but not missing) desire to find meaning in his life.
It certainly helps that all the performers exhibit incredible talent. Nichols’ Natasha is sweet, vulnerable, and as believable as she is frustrating. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that Nichols has an unforgettable singing voice. Similarly, Grace Hamashima, as Natasha’s loyal cousin Sonya, belts out every line with aplomb. Wade also stands out for his smirking portrayal of Anatole, while Toole’s Pierre is endearing and relatable despite the distant time in which the story is set. Add in other skilled musicians and performers, including Tedd Szeto’s adorable turn as Balga, as well as some sultry choreography and silky costumes, and you’ve got the recipe for a marvelous musical.
This production is exciting, overwhelming, and a whole mix of conflicting things that combine to create something amazing and innovative. In fact, Theatre Raleigh is quickly becoming known for pushing the envelope and daring to bring totally different theatrics to the Triangle area. Thus, if you want something mundane, stay home. But, if you want something that’s pounding, precise, and perfect down to the mesmerizing ending, this is the show for you.
*The performance runs through November 6, and tickets can be purchased here.
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