Review: Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812

A musical adaptation of <em>War and Peace</em> could easily have become sprawlingly shallow. But director Rachel Chavkin and writer-composer David Malloy are unafraid to let Tolstoyan complexity play out onstage.

At first glance, the deliriously decadent, gleefully implausible concept of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 looks like something out of an unlikely-pitch handbook: a single strand of Tolstoy's Napeoleonic doorstopper, re-imagined as an interactive, dinner-theatre rock opera cabaret. Certainly Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 could be forgiven for resting on its conceptual laurels: the Siberian-bazaar décor (plenty of red velvet, intermittent icons) and itinerant, fur-clad musicians almost merit the ticket price. But, beneath (and at times in spite of) the production's everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach, Comet is one of the most gorgeously nuanced portrayals of passion running on either side of the Atlantic.

A musical adaptation of War and Peace could easily have become sprawlingly shallow. But director Rachel Chavkin and writer-composer David Malloy are unafraid to let Tolstoyan complexity play out onstage, allowing us a richly textured glimpse into the love lives of a few of War and Peace's main characters that still manages to suggest their story's cosmic significance. Focusing as it does on the love triangle between the vivacious Natasha (Phillipa Soo, heart-wrenchingly luminous, refusing to fall back on the emotional shorthand of the ingenue soprano), her absent fiance Prince Andrei (Blake DeLong), and the rakish, honey-voiced Anatole (Lucas Steele, treading the fine line between heartthrob and comic fop), Comet's storyline sidesteps the War half of Tolstoy's novel. Yet it is a testament to the strength of the performances, as well as to the darkly haunting quality of Dave Malloy's musical score, that Natasha's doomed passion for Anatole feels no less vital, no less profound, than the fate of the world being destroyed around them.

The lyrics – often taken wholesale from Tolstoy's novel – produce a curiously Brechtian, if at times dissonant, effect : in describing their own actions in such a seemingly detached manner - “Natasha crossed the room”, “Pierre looked up”, and so forth – our Moscow denizens become victims of emotional forces they cannot control, powerless witnesses to the downfall that no amount of “soothing irony,” as Natasha puts it, can prevent.

While a Tolstoy purist might complain about the number of side plots cut in the service of Natasha's story (Mary and Sonia, in particular, suffer from adaptation decay), Comet's supporting characters are compelling enough to demand our attention even when given relatively little to do. As Helene, Pierre's wife (as the helpful, patronymic-skirting lyrics frequently remind us), Anatole's sister, and self-proclaimed “slut”, Amber Gray melds cabaret-style showmanship and searing sensuality; her standout number, “Charming,” with which she pushes the already-vulnerable Natasha into her brother's arms is a masterpiece of feline manipulation. Grace Mclean, as Natasha's “old school” godmother Marya, exudes brassy exuberance; her throaty outrage at Natasha's betrayal is the closest we get to Weill-style cabaret. Blake Delong, too often offstage as Andrei, reappears as the marvelously vile Prince Bolkonsky, squaring off powerfully against his defiantly dutiful daughter Mary (Shaina Taub, a powerhouse of quiet emotion).

Yet the night's best performance belongs to by Brittain Ashford, as Natasha's stalwart cousin Sonya. Plainly dressed, simply coiffed, and given all the most painfully exposition-laden lines, Sonya has little to do for most of the play but watch from the sidelines as her cousin waltzes her way towards dishonor and disgrace. But Ashworth – her voice an uncanny, even unearthly, blend of folk melancholy and raw passion – makes her into Comet's unsung heroine: the dull wallflower whose stoic love for her cousin proves far more powerful, and far more lasting, than Anatole's hastily-flung affections.

Against the sheer power of the play itself, some of Comet's trendier trappings – the occasional interactive moment, the dinner served with the show, the post-performance musical acts – feel somewhat superfluous. Comet's brilliance lies not in its flair for spectacle, but in its honest, haunting look at the vagaries of passion, and the dazzling capacities of the human heart.

Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 is playing At Kazino, West 13th Street, at Washington Street, West Village, New York until 1 September

The cast of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. Photograph: Loren Wohl

Tara Isabella Burton's work has appeared in The Spectator, Guernica Daily, Lady Adventurer, and more. In 2012 she won The Spectator's Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize. She is represented by the Philip G. Spitzer Literary Agency; her first novel is currently on submission.

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If tattoos could talk: Glen Campbell's life in music

The late singer made a trade of music, and made it look easy.

There was a rudimentary tattoo on his left upper arm, which he’d given himself at the age of nine: a small cartoon dagger, scratched with a needle and filled with ink, 72 years ago, in the yard of the house he shared with 11 brothers and sisters in Bills­town, Arkansas. In his last years, doing interviews about Alzheimer’s in his final home of Nashville, he’d wear T-shirts and you could just make out the tip of the dagger emerging from his sleeve. But for decades you wouldn’t have seen it, beneath flower-power shirts on his late-1960s TV show, or the fitted tuxedos of the 1970s, as he played the “William Tell Overture” on his guitar with the philharmonics of the world.

His accent came and went, too, as he adapted his vowels and crossed his Ts for the sophisticated compositions of his regular musical partner Jimmy Webb, another southerner making his way in LA. Campbell was the son of a sharecropper but he didn’t like getting his hands dirty. When he left home at 14 to become a musician, it was a practical move for the family – the money was good, and without him there was more room in the house.

As the first-call guitarist in the elite LA session group the Wrecking Crew, he played on 500 tracks in one year. Carole Kaye, who later delivered the bass line on his most famous song, “Wichita Lineman”, told me they all went out to buy big diamond signet rings with their wages one day. Glen peered into his: “Hey, look, I can see Russia,” he said.

Dirt poor, down-home, authentic – he may have been those things, but it was not his business to claim to be. He wasn’t a songwriter; he was an interpreter of other people’s material – a concept almost alien in a modern musical climate that expects songs to be a reflection of an artist’s inner life. He would take the most urbane track and throw it back at his audience with an incandescent ordinariness. “It is like a bird flying, it’s like somebody breathing, it is easy for him,” his musical director TJ Kuenster said.

Exactly how he achieved it was more mysterious. He had a habit of speeding things up, injecting light and energy into songs and turning them into something kinetic and fresh. His vocal entries often lagged a fraction of a second behind the beat, making each one sound like a spontaneous thought.

On his prime-time TV show, with his hair sprayed into a high wave, he’d awkwardly navigate the light comedy of the day: the Smothers Brothers riding hippos through the studio, or the skits with Sonny and Cher. His talking voice was chirpy; then he’d sit down to play Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” and it was as if a switch had been flicked. His face fell into a state of instant clarity, intense but faraway, with sometimes a hint of pain – though you knew the pain wasn’t his.

He never sang about himself, which made the private self a separate entity. There was the lost Glen of the late 1970s, blank of eye and huge of beard, free­basing cocaine in a Vegas hotel room, having fisticuffs with his girlfriend. There was the middle-aged golf-playing Republican, baptised in a freezing creek under the watch of his younger wife; then tanned and born again, happily doing his Donald Duck impressions on stage. There was the lapsed Glen who hit the whiskey again as a pensioner, drove drunk, attempted to knee a policeman in the genitals, ran down a freeway, got snapped for a famously bad mugshot and spent ten days in prison, where he still managed to perform an impromptu set on a couple of hay bales.

But at any point in the 55-year ride, amid the personal dramas and lapses of musical taste, he’d open his mouth and what came out was deeply serious. You couldn’t imagine him writing a shopping list but he had an ear for poetry – teeing up particular lines in Webb’s songs for his audience, asking how someone so young could write “Asleep on the Wind”, an impressionistic portrait of a legendary bird that spends its whole life in the air. He’d take Webb’s tracks away and arrange them for his guitar, playing them back at their composer in his trance-like state. When the song was over, he’d snap out of it and laugh. “Those chords! If I start thinkin’ about them I miss ’em! I love it! Write me another one like that!”

When I noticed the tattoo sticking out of his T-shirt, faded like a biro scrawl, it struck me as strange that the same piece of skin had passed through so much of 20th-century music, with its changing notions of what it means to be “authentic”. The arm had travelled from sacred harp singing in Steinbeck’s south to Bob Wills’s hayseed country shows in the golden age of 1950s TV; from Vietnam protest songs to the stifling world of residencies in Las Vegas – and finally to the life of a “country legend”, via the theatres of Missouri and the golf courses of Arizona. In middle age, he recorded religious albums that sounded as pure as “Wichita Lineman”. Once again, he was acting as a funnel, for a different kind of light.

He was the real deal not because he turned his personal experience into a marketable commodity but because he made a trade of music, and made it look easy. He followed the gold rush, sold himself, got himself back just in time – yet in his playing, and the very touch of his tongue on his teeth, he was astonishingly truthful. It was the ultimate life in music, and in that sense, too, he is a piece of time lost. 

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear