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'Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812'

A Crow's Theatre and The Musical Stage Company co-production now onstage at Crow's Theatre, 345 Carlaw Avenue

Credit: Dahlia Katz. Pictured: Evan Buliung as Pierre

Joe Szekeres

VOICE CHOICE

Wondrous, theatrical, lavish storytelling that never lets up on its emotional impact! Such heaven! A theatre experience I will never, ever forget.

A sung-through musical of seventy pages of Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ sounds heavenly in the Guloien Theatre at Crow’s. According to the billing on Crow’s website, the musical score “mixes indie rock, pop, folk, electronic dance, and classic Broadway music.”

Such heaven. It’s a theatre experience I will never, ever forget. I may have to download the album to hear the score again.

My suggestion - do whatever you can to get tickets. Now. The Crow’s and Musical Stage Company production has been extended to February 4.

It’s Moscow, 1812, the upper-class echelon of society. Getting to know the ten characters will take a few minutes. ‘Natasha, Pierre & The Gret Comet of 1812’ is a story about the pangs of love, deceit, friendship, forgiveness, and familial bonds. The House Programme contains the Family Tree and how each character is connected. It would be a good idea to peruse it beforehand. At the top of the show, these characters are cleverly introduced via the opening song with a humorous comment about the names from Russian literature.

Pierre (Evan Buliung) is a sad, sullen, and unhappily married man to Hélène (Divine Brown), who is unfaithful to her husband. Pierre feels as if he is wasting his life. He is a close friend to Andrey (Marcus Nance), who is off fighting in the war. Andrey is engaged to Natasha (Hailey Gillis), Sonya’s (Camille Eanga-Selenge) cousin. Sonya and Natasha have arrived in Moscow to wait for Andrey to return from war. The ladies visit Natasha’s godmother, Marya (Louise Pitre). Natasha has yet to meet Andrey’s sister, Mary (Heeyun Park 박희윤) and their father, Bolkonsky (Marcus Nance in a dual role) and has planned to meet them during this time, which ends disastrously between everyone involved.

Natasha goes to the opera with Marya and Sonya and meets Pierre’s brother-in-law, Anatole (George Krissa), a handsome womanizer and ultimately ends up in an affair with him. (Let’s not forget Natasha is engaged to Andrey.) Natasha and Anatole’s affair has a dismal effect as each character has a stake of involvement. Several subplots all stem from this storyline of the affair.

Co-designers Julie Fox and Joshua Quinlan have created a jaw-dropping marvellous set design of three levels. Every inch of the Guloien is used to its maximum potential, and I tried to take in as much as possible pre-show. The actors enter and exit from all sides. Ross Kerr-Wilson has paid minute and careful attention to detail, from the gorgeous-looking red drapery to the glass decanter and drinking goblets on the piano. To the right of where I sat, it looked as if there was an altar with open religious books printed in what I thought might have been the Russian language.

Kimberly Purtell’s lighting design subtly underscores the moment's emotional intensity, especially in those heightened conflicts between the characters. For the most part, Ryan Borshuk’s sound design remains solid, as I could hear the lyrics in several of librettist Dave Malloy’s stirring ballads and duets. Listening to the lyrics in some ensemble numbers is still challenging because of the slightly uneven sound balance between the orchestra and singers. Still, the harmonies resound gloriously throughout the theatre.

‘Natasha…’ remains a truly spectacular moment in the theatre. Chris Abraham and Ryan deSouza direct with a regal style and elegant flair. Ray Hogg’s fluid and electric choreography becomes a wondrous, staged accomplishment. The energetic and vibrant movement of the show never lets up. The first act nicely sets up the story; however, it is the second act where the pacing takes off. The second half dazzled and riveted me, leaving me bereft of emotion for a few moments at the curtain call.

The formidable ensemble cast is one of the main reasons to see the show. They remain committed to telling a story of passion, intrigue, and deception with a compelling and convicted truth. The show remains genuinely engrossing, and I didn’t realize the time passed.

Each time Evan Buliung sang, I felt tears welling. His performance as the oppressed, spiritually lifeless Pierre remains solidly gut-wrenching throughout. His watching of The Great Comet in a silhouetted tableau stillness becomes striking and hopeful at the end. As Natasha, Hailey Gillis is initially charming and lovely when the audience first meets her. However, her deception to begin her affair with Anatole removes her from that childlike, dutiful innocence to a scorned woman who will ultimately and heartfully feel her error in her choice. Gillis never veers into histrionics as Natasha’s world comes crashing around her. George Krissa is the quintessential hunky and shirtless Anatole whose suavity and bravado seduces Gillis’s Natasha. Krissa smiles, flirts, and breaks the fourth wall to do the same with some female audience members sitting in the front row. His ‘bad boy’ Anatole is one to be remembered at his worst, especially in the final moments with Pierre at the end of Act Two.

Marcus Nance believably creates two exciting and different characterizations in a dual role as Andrey and his old father, Bolkonsky. At the end of the second act, his Andrey may seem cold-hearted in responding to Natasha. However, at least Nance made me feel that Andrey’s reaction and motivation are valid because he has been wronged. Louise Pitre gifts a sense of grace as the strong, remarkable, and matronly Marya. As Sonya, Camille Eanga-Selenge's reaction to the letter Natasha has written in breaking off her engagement is another heart-wrenching moment in singing she ‘misses her friend’ (Natasha). Sonya’s song in the second act becomes a fervent wish that she loves Natasha and only wants the best for her cousin, even though it may mean the two of them may never save their close friendship.

I left the theatre and rode in the car on the way home, not saying a word for a few minutes.

Final Comments: Confession again. This English major never read ‘War and Peace.’ Seeing this outstanding production makes me want to tackle the classic sometime soon. Will I? That remains to be seen. But I did tackle ‘Les Misérables’ after seeing the musical years ago. There might be hope.

At least this musical adaptation has given me a taste of Tolstoy’s text.

Get tickets for this, please.

Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one interval/intermission.

‘Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812’ runs until March 17, 2024, in the Guloien Theatre at Streetcar Crowsnest, 345 Carlaw Avenue, Toronto. For tickets: crowstheatre.com or call the Box Office (647) 341-7390 ex. 1010.

NATASHA, PIERRE & THE GREAT COMET OF 1812 by Dave Malloy
Co-presented by Crow’s Theatre and The Musical Stage Company

Directed by Chris Abraham
Choreography by Ray Hogg
Music Direction by Ryan deSouza
Composer, Librettist, Orchestrator: Dave Malloy
Co-Set Designers: Julie Fox and Joshua Quinlan
Costume Designer: Ming Wong
Lighting Designer: Kimberly Purtell
Sound Designer: Ryan Borshuk
Stage Manager: Sarah Miller
Assistant Director: Paolo Santalucia
Assistant Choreographer: Tyler Pearse
Orchestra Members: Ryan deSouza, Aleh Remezau, Colleen Cook, Alex Grant, Clara Nguyen-Tran, Rachel O’Brien, David Atkinson

Performers: Divine Brown, Evan Buliung, Rita Dottor, Camille Eanga-Selenge, Donna Garner, Hailey Gillis, George Krissa, Lawrence Libor, Marcus Nance, Heeyun Park박희윤, Andrew Penner, Louise Pitre, Brendan Wall

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