Arvada Center Brings Tolstoy Epic To The Stage
Reviewed by Tom Jones
February 19, 2024
The cast opens the show singing, “There’s a war going on out there somewhere. There’s a war going on out there.” These are Moscow aristocrats in 1812 whose main concerns about the war appear to be that they aren’t happy at home. And one of their group, Andrey is “out there somewhere, and Andrey isn’t here!” No one knows when he’s coming home.
Andrey will hopefully return soon. He has left a grumpy father who is losing control of his faculties, and a sister who is devoting her entire dreary life to the care and keeping of her uncaring and unkempt father.
Andrey has a friend, Pierre, who is not involved in the war. He has remained in Moscow, living with a wife, Helene, who he basically detests, drinking himself to oblivion, and wallowing in self-pity. Helene, has lovers of her own and has no inclination to enjoy her husband. She has a brother, Anatole, living in Moscow, who is an absolute rake, always looking for women to enjoy. He, too, is unhappily married, anxious to find romance wherever he can.
Into this dismal group come Natasha and her cousin, Sonya. They are best friends, outwardly sunny and happy. Natasha is engaged to Andrey, and has come to town to officially meet Andrey’s father and sister. This is not family match made in heaven. The father decides at first glance that he does not like Natasha. Mary, Anatole’s sister, decides at first glance that she doesn’t like Natasha. Oh well, for the time being, “There’s a war going on and Andrey’s is not in town.” Maybe when he returns everything can be just hunky dory.
Such is the premise of this unusually interesting sung-through musical adventure, now on stage at the Arvada Center, “”Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.” This not an ordinary “Let’s put on a show” type of production. The setting at first glance is like entering into a lavish Russian home, only to find that the stage is completely surrounded by audience. The cast and musicians wandered on and off the stage, out into the audience, winking as some, singing and playing instruments as if they were enjoying an evening at a Russian cabaret. Then I realized that I was more than just a spectator, I was part of the show. Unlike the missing Andrey, I was “ there!” Why in the world had I gone to Moscow in 1812? And who were these people sitting by me? Did they already know Natasha and Pierre, or were they meeting them for the first time? This is quite an effect!
The “story” is taken from 70 pages, near the middle of Leo Tolstoy’s 2000-plus pages historic novel, “War and Peace.” The entire production is sung. The music has the feeling of what just might be Russian folk music, with a touch of present-day pop/rock. Although there are no hummable melodies, the total experience is enormously entertaining. The set is glorious, the costumes are terrific, and the show is a sight to behold. The continually moving band/orchestra performers are flawless. This is more like going on a two- and one-half-hour amusement park ride than going to an actual musical. And unlike the missing Andrey, “I was there!”
Tolstoy published “War and Peace” in 1869, about 50 years after the time reflected in the production. This segment of the novel touches on the romance of Natasha and Anatole, while Pierre searches for meaning in his life, and everyone else just tries to cope.
While Natasha is in town to meet Andrey’s parents, she meets Anatole, unaware that he is already married. Romantic sparks fly and Natasha decides she will throw her love for Andrey to the wind and run off with her new-found jerk, Anatole, much to the dismay of everyone in the show, and my now-friends in the audience.
The cast is universally talented. Brett Ambler as Pierre and Bella Anaya Hawthorne as Natasha are great performers, as are Jack Wardell as Anatole, Aynsley Upton as Sonja, Neyla Pekarek as Mary, Nicole deBree as Helen e, Bryce Baxter as Dolokhov, Anna Maria High as Marya D, Brian Watson as Old Prince Bolkonsky and as Balaga, and David Otto as Andrey. The supporting cast is equally flawless – Elleon Dobias, Penina Eisenberg, Drew Horwitz and Ronald MacQueen.
The incredible goings-on are directed by Lynne Collins, with David Nehls as music director and Grady Soapes as choreographer
Versions of the musical had limited performances, before premiering on Broadway in November of 2016. The production received excellent reviews and was nominated for 12 awards – the highest number of nominations in the 2017 season. Josh Groban performed as Pierre in the Broadway show.
This is not a traditional theatrical production – but an unusually interesting one, extremely well done by a wonderfully talented cast. Near the end the “Comet of 1812” appears in the sky. Some see it as a portent of good things to come. Others are fearful, but we are left unknowing. As the performance ended, I felt amazed at the talent of the performers, but I really didn’t like the characters they were portraying. By the time I reached home, however, I realized that the show was so effective that I ended up really “caring.” The first thing I did upon returning home was to head to my computer. I Googled to learn how Tolstoy continued his story of Pierre and Natasha, and Sonja, and Anatole and Andrey, and Helena, and my other friends from the evening. This is wonderful entertainment. Or maybe I was just enlightened by the comet!
“Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812”
Through March 31, 2024
Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities
6901 Wadsworth Boulevard
Arvada, CO 80003