By SHARON EBERSON
From the moment you walk into the Benedum Center auditorium, you know: This is something different.
The modernist design that greets you – a bedazzled backdrop and a neon sign reading: Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 – heralds Pittsburgh CLO’s 2023 summer finale as a new kid on the block in the company’s nearly 80 years of producing musical revivals.
The 12-time Tony Award-nominated musical that opened Tuesday at the Benedum Center has a hyper-busy, beguiling look to go along with its fresh sound of musical storytelling. In 2016, when it arrived on Broadway, no one had seen or heard anything quite like writer/composer/lyricist Dave Malloy’s innovative, sung-through piece of War and Peace. That hasn’t changed, as daring theatermakers such as CLO pick up and run with the challenge of mounting Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812.
Having experienced the musical twice before – in its immersive Broadway production and in a thrilling thrust presentation at Carnegie Mellon – I was perhaps more familiar than most with the drama to come. Yet I was still swept away by the scope of scenic designer Tim Mackabee’s vision – a visual feast of colorful, animated projections; 12 mobile, dazzling chandeliers; and practical set pieces built by CLO’s construction team, specifically for this production.
And oh, those decadent 19th-century Russian aristocrats and their entourages, with their First World problems.
As rendered by Leo Tolstoy in 70 pages of his 1869 epic novel, this story is the “peace” part, with a big nod toward the tens of thousands of soldiers killed and wounded fighting Napoleon’s army. Here, we get mostly the rich and titled of Moscow, not always enjoying their oblivious lives of opulence.
The impressive vocal talent assembled by CLO is led by Carnegie Mellon University graduate Nick Rehberger as Pierre, breathing new life into a role that was the Broadway debut of CMU alum Josh Groban. Pierre is the cuckolded husband of a slut – her word. He drinks and reads, reads and drinks, and supports his ne’er-do-well brother-in-law, Anatole. He also is friend to the soldier Andrey (Billy Cohen, in a dual role), Natasha’s betrothed, and Natasha’s family, and connects this bougie group and their operatic dramas, while poor Andrey is off fighting the war with France.
Sandra Okuboyejo, a soprano whose range includes award-winning voiceover roles, portrays the naive, pampered Natasha, the girl you love to hate, and the catalyst for a whole lot of misery, including her own. She is a mess of desire and self-delusion – wealthy and admired by men from all walks of life, making choices that can be the downfall of them all.
With Andrey away, and charming Anatole wooing her, what’s a girl to do?
They sing of love and woe and more in a score that has no singular style, except the percussiveness that propels each melody, but with each, a heartbeat all its own. The exciting, explanatory Prologue lets you know upfront that you’re in for an opera – all dialogue is sung-through – and if you have any questions, check your program.
Every role player gets a quick description upfront: Natasha is young, cousin Sonya is good, Anatole is hot and spends his money on women and wine, and so on. Character traits repeat, as in the “12 Days of Christmas,” to make sure you are acquainted not only with their names, but to fuel expectations.
That Natasha’s cousin and confidante Sonya is “good,” however, could use a bit more hyperbole when speaking of the actress who plays her, Kennedy Caughell. Her ballad, “Sonya Alone,” reveals a lovely voice that served her in Beautiful: the Carole King Musical, on Broadway and the national tour, and as a Broadway understudy and swing in the musical at hand.
Okyboyejo has the toughest role, and the vocal and emotional range to pull off Natasha’s roller-coaster highs and lows. The young countess is vulnerable to a cad like Anatole (a perfectly slimy Jason Gotay) and his duplicitous sister and Pierre’s unfaithful wife, Helene (Lili Thomas). In her youthful ignorance, Natasha rejects the pleadings of those closest to her, Sonya and her guardian, Marya D (an imperious, protective Nastascia Diaz).
As party girl Helene, who flaunts her infidelity, Thomas is a hoot, particularly when “Charming” Natasha, by luring her to her fate.
A reprise of the opening melody but titled “Letters” heralds the second act: In nineteenth-century Russia / we write letters … We put down in writing / What is happening in our minds …
Songs in this musical often describe actions or have individuals singing about themselves in the third person, as in a book narrative. “Letters,” for instance, clarifies where everyone stands, including a running joke about Anatole’s partner in crime, Dolokov (charming Jacob Dickey).
Natasha, Pierre … has one of the season’s largest casts, an ensemble of 18 and an orchestra of 12, conducted by pianist Catie Brown. Under the supervision of James Cunningham through most of the summer, the CLO Orchestra, interpreting a gamut of musical theater styles, hits another high note in the finale.
Charlie Sutton’s choreography incorporates some of what we think of as traditional Russian dance but is widely imaginative, particularly in expressing the many talents and long lines of Jamari Johnson Williams as Balaga, a drinking buddy, carriage driver and all-around party guy.
The CLO production is a feast of sight and sound that comes at you in waves of impressionistic and expressionistic color. Costume designer Christine Meyers keeps Natasha swathed mostly in white, with a shift to red meaningful at a key moment in her story, and makes individualistic choices that enhance the aura of the performers. However standing out against the projected backdrops by Akhila Krisnan isn’t always easy. They offer a romantic, expressionistic view of the Moscow of 1812 as they burst into view, often settling into a gentle snowfall over outdoor scenes, or moving wildly, as in an inventive race against time.
As a season finale, Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 is a bold, even risky choice for a company whose audience often comes in humming the tunes before the first note. In a summer that included standards such as Anything Goes, Into the Woods, The Sound of Music and Guys and Dolls, only Once on This Island preceded Natasha, Pierre … as a first-timer for Pittsburgh CLO.
To the delight of those of us who appreciate invigorating the oldies and embrace the new, these have been “pull out all the stops” productions. The finale, in particular, impresses as a massive undertaking that pays off as massively entertaining, from the stunning visual storytelling to the dynamic melding of imported and local talent.
As for the “comet” of the title, it famously was apparent to the naked eye of Russians for most of 1811, not 1812, and was said to portend the invasion of Moscow by French troops.
For Natasha, Pierre & Co., their story unfolds in the turbulent peace before the war hits Moscow. It’s a story with sparks aplenty to fuel theatrical imagination and provide an out-of-this-world send off for Pittsburgh CLO’s 2023 season.
Ensemble member Kylie Edwards, the Gene Kelly Award winner out of Gateway High School and rising sophomore at Carnegie Mellon, is the 2023 recipient of CLO’s annual Julia Deberson Award. The award honors an ensemble member who exemplifies the ideals of “professional skill, high work ethic, an optimistic attitude, the ability to work well with others and, above all, a passion for one’s work.” Edwards was an ensemble member in three CLO shows this season. … On August 8, Rehberger wrapped the role of Laertes in NYC Shakespeare In the Park‘s Hamlet. The New York Times’ Jesse Green noted, “In Nick Rehberger’s rendering of Laertes, the character’s grief, fury and forgiveness all ring true.” … The Greer Cabaret front-of-house bar and lounge, previously the Backstage, is open for business. Its performance space is still being worked on, but otherwise, the well-lit, spacious area fronting the still-closed cabaret was accepting customers in a soft opening on Tuesday night. After a major overhaul, the cabaret space is scheduled to reopen on September 22, with a CLO Cabaret production of tick, tick … BOOM!
TICKETS AND DETAILS
Pittsburgh CLO’s production of Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 is at the Benedum Center, Downtown, through Sunday, August 27. Tickets: visit https://www.pittsburghclo.org/shows/natasha-pierre-the-great-comet-of-1812 or call 412-456-6666.