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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Tracey Thorn and A L Kennedy to judge the 2017 Goldsmiths Prize

The prize for “fiction at its most novel” announces its 2017 judging panel.

Tracey Thorn has been announced as a judge for the 2017 Goldsmiths Prize for fiction. Thorn – a singer-songwriter, New Statesman columnist and bestselling author – joins the award-winning novelists Kevin Barry, A L Kennedy and Naomi Wood, on the judging panel.

The £10,000 prize, co-founded with the New Statesman, is for fiction that “breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form”: The 2016 prize was won by Mike McCormack for Solar Bones, a novel narrated by a dead man, written in a single sentence. The judges praised it as “beautiful and transcendent” and “an extraordinary work”. McCormack is the third Irish writer to win the award, after Kevin Barry –  whose novel about John Lennon, Beatlebone, won in 2015 – and Eimear McBride, whose debut A Girl is a Half-formed Thing won the inaugural prize in 2013, having taken nine years to find a publisher. The 2014 prize was won by Ali Smith for her “reversible” novel How to be Both, which consisted of two narratives that could be read in either order.

Tracey Thorn found fame with Ben Watt in the duo Everything But The Girl, and went on to record as a solo artist and collaborate with Massive Attack, John Grant and others. She has published two books, including the Sunday Times-best-selling memoir, Bedsit Disco Queen, and writes a fortnightly column in the New Statesman, “Off the record”. Kevin Barry is the author of two short story collections and two novels, the first of which, City of Bohane, set in a wild west Cork in 2053, won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. A L Kennedy has twice been included in the Granta list of Best of Young British Novelists and she has written in many forms, as well as performing as a stand-up comedian. Her 19 books include the non-fiction work On Bullfighting and the novel Day, which won the Costa Book of the Year Award in 2007. Naomi Wood, who is chair of judges, is lecturer in creative writing at Goldsmiths; her most recent novel is the award-winning Mrs Hemingway.

Speaking at the prizegiving held at Foyles Charing Cross Road last November, Mike McCormack said: “It’s about time the prize-giving community honoured experimental works and time that mainstream publishers started honouring their readership . . . Readers are smart. They’re up for it.” Talking to Stephanie Boland of the New Statesman, he criticised the staid nature of British publishing: “Irish writers are selling their books into what is one of the most conservative literary cultures in the world, into Britain. British novels, British fiction, is dominated by an intellectual conservatism.”

The Goldsmiths Prize is open for submissions (novels written by authors from the UK and the Republic of Ireland) from 20 January to 24 March, 2017. The shortlist will be announced on 27 September and the winner on 8 November.

Tom Gatti is Culture Editor of the New Statesman. He previously edited the Saturday Review section of the Times, and can be found on Twitter as @tom_gatti.