Theatre

An electro-pop musical based on part of Tolstoy’s War and Peace is a joyful, messy ride that gets its audience dancing in the aisles. By Cassie Tongue.

Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812

A performer on stage in a white gown.
Grace Driscoll as Natasha in Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812.
Credit: Robert Catto

At first glance, it seems wildly original: Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 is an immersive electro-pop musical based on a 70-page sliver of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. But it’s also one of musical theatre’s oldest tricks in the book.

For as long as the musical has existed – as a story with songs that either fully integrate into the plot or complement it – the form has been in love with the art of adaptation. It looks back to move forward and brings old stories into new conversations with current audiences. This is how musicals such as Great Comet can push the boundaries of a traditionally populist art form.

Great Comet premiered off-Broadway in 2012; its 2017 Broadway production was nominated for 12 Tony Awards. Written and composed by Dave Malloy, who also originated the role of Pierre, the musical uses its narrow focus on a subplot of the novel, along with erudite lyrics and immersive production elements, to transform 19th-century scandal into an urgent study of desire, purpose and becoming.

The musical’s Australian premiere is an entirely new production, directed by Dean Drieberg for Darlinghurst Theatre Company, that is thrumming with a need to burst forth, communicate and connect.

The plot is relatively straightforward for, as the ensemble winkingly describes it, “a complicated Russian novel / everyone’s got nine different names”. Natasha (Grace Driscoll) is engaged to Prince Andrey (P. Tucker Worley), who is fighting in the Napoleonic wars. During a night at the opera with cousin Sonya (Kala Gare), Natasha has a chance meeting with the roguish Anatole (Jules Pendrith), which leads to an affair. Anatole is unconcerned by Natasha’s engagement; Natasha doesn’t know Anatole is married.

And then there’s Pierre (Zoy Frangos), a long-time friend of Natasha’s family. Stranded for purpose, unhappily married and unsure if he’s capable of love, it’s Pierre who attempts to help make things right when Natasha is at her lowest – and the two of them learn to see the world differently.

If you don’t know the novel, the story is perfectly contained in this musical format. In the hands of Drieberg and company, it’s an electric, joyful, baffling ride.

It’s impossible to resist the alchemy of the score, which is truly eclectic electro-pop: it blends electronic dance music and indie pop-rock with classical ballads, klezmer and folk, reflecting the decadence of these characters while a war rages just beyond their doors.

The emotional immediacy of the performance is an impressive achievement, especially given the story is often lost in missed mic cues and muddy sound design that swallows up the lyrics. And the set design, while clever, is relied upon too heavily and so detracts from the plot.

It’s understandable how that happened. There’s only so much you can do to transform Darlinghurst’s Eternity Playhouse, a boutique theatre inside an old church, but designer Tyler Hawkins hasn’t held back. Seating banks have been removed to give the actors a platform in the middle of the audience; some audience members are seated onstage; the actors play scenes – and instruments – on the stairs. They also scale ladders to play scenes in makeshift theatre boxes. In the centre of the stage is a circular platform, and when Natasha and Anatole first lay eyes on each other, it illuminates and beats like a heart (a feature of Veronique Benett’s lighting design). A giant mirror ball is our window into newer, bigger feelings. It spins when we need it most.

Natasha and Anatole’s love affair is everywhere – it overwhelms us as much as it overwhelms her – but Pierre, whose journey is more internal, is hidden from sight for much of the show in one of those boxes, cut off from everyone else. We never quite grasp – especially since we can’t hear all the lyrics – his critical role as a deeply connected observer.

It’s a tradeoff: nuance for spectacle. Scenic transitions are often a chance for further character work, but here they tend to hang aimlessly and sometimes it’s hard to see the small moments that matter between characters.

It’s hard to mitigate the loss of Pierre from a show that bears his name – especially when Frangos is remarkable in the role. That said, musicals are an act of advanced juggling and they are also best refined in front of an audience – I wouldn’t be surprised if many of these small moments of narrative discord right themselves over the course of the run.

Drieberg, who most recently was the resident director of the Australia/New Zealand tour of Hamilton, has a keen instinct for musicals, and there’s a lot to love here. His characters come alive especially in solo numbers and duets. In his hands, an epiphany or a lamentation feels like the most important thing in the world. Drieberg understands this is the language of musicals: our emotional discoveries are our compass.

Musical director Claire Healy is just as responsive to story. There’s a meaningful connection between her and the cast – who play a variety of instruments and make up the bulk of her band. Their live performance is thrilling, though there’s also a touch of messiness in tempo and timing. If we could hear it better, that might not matter.

Still, when Natasha feels second-hand embarrassment at the opera, we see a re-enactment through her eyes that nails the experience. When Anatole struts through the audience – in a way that both Tolstoy and Malloy point out would be ridiculous were he not so handsome – we feel his magnetism. Later, Pierre’s wife, Hélène (Marissa Saroca), promises guileless Natasha that having a little fun on the side is all the rage, and it’s a bluesy seduction that nearly blows the roof off the theatre.

Choreographer Brendan Yeates blends folk with contemporary style, drawing particularly on European club movement and queer performance. In the second act, he makes the show such a party the entire audience is on its feet, dancing and clapping. Anatole and his co-conspirators run through the audience for high fives, and they get them.

It’s not perfect, but inside it is magic, an undeniable stirring of feeling, a promise. Just as the comet itself heralds fundamental change in Russia in War and Peace, this Great Comet is a sign: the artists who will help Australian musical theatre evolve are here. They’re hungry, and they’re ready. 

Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 plays at Darlinghurst Theatre Company, Sydney, until August 20.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 22, 2023 as "Blazing trails".

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