Out of This World: Comet is an artsy and unorthodox portrayal of Russian society

Rodney Witherspoon II as Pierre. Photo by Erin X. Smithers

Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 hit Broadway in the wake of Hamilton, and it was unlike anything else the Great White Way had ever seen. It completely transformed the Imperial Theater where it took up residency for just shy of a year from your standard-faire proscenium stage into a cabaret with onstage seating and an open bar; the audience truly becomes an integral part of the show.

Few shows out there are quite as perfectly suited for The Wilbury Theatre Group as Great Comet. While such an immersive, interactive theatre experience may be a rare sight on Broadway, this isn’t Wilbury’s first foray into a show like this, and their relatively new blackbox space in the WaterFire Arts Center is well suited to adapt to such a unique undertaking – especially with the clever use of space employed by scene designers Keri King, Max Ponticelli and Monica Shinn

Even before the proverbial curtain rises, it’s clear the fourth wall, the typically expected invisible barrier between the audience and the action on stage, will not be so strictly upheld, as members of the cast are free to mill about and mingle with the audience—a decision by Director Josh Short that would have any theatre traditionalist clutching their pearls. Then again, Wilbury has never been one to cater to theatre traditionalists. The limited seating contributes to this, creating an intimate feel. On the subject of seating, the action truly happens all over the space, which means the choice of where to sit must take into account sightlines. Generally, higher up seems to be better for a little less neck-straining: a few rows up in the section next to the band served quite well in terms of seeing everything.

Adapted by Dave Malloy from a slice of the classic Russian novel War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, it might seem like a boring basis for a musical, but this particular part of War and Peace is filled with scandalous happenings in Russia’s high society. There are affairs, raves, plenty of drinking and accordion-playing.

The opening number “Prologue” even acknowledges the unapproachable (at least to those who are not students of Russian literature) premise of the show, providing a meta breakdown of the characters by giving each one a one-word epithet (“Anatole is hot, Helene is a slut” etc). It serves as a cheeky musical-equivalent of the phrase “let me Google that for you,” informing the audience they are “Gonna have to study up a little bit if you want to keep with the plot/’Cause it’s a complicated Russian novel, everyone’s got nine different names/So look it up in your program/We appreciate it, thanks a lot.” Despite these warnings, the plot is fairly easy to follow, and the characters are distinct enough to keep straight.

At the center of the action is Natasha (Kayla Shimizu), an incredibly naive young woman who anxiously awaits the return of her fiancé Andrei (Dylan Michael Bowden) from the “war” half of War and Peace. Along with her cousin and closest friend Sonya (Madeleine Barker), she ventures from the country to the big city of Moscow to live with her godmother Marya (Charlotte Kinder) to win the approval of Andrei’s “totally messed-up” family (Wilbury favorites Jason Quinn as the crazy Old Prince Bolkonsky and Jennifer Mischley as the plain and lonely Mary) and enter into Moscow society. As Natasha, Shimizu comes across like a Disney princess, albeit with more adultery, portraying her naivete so genuinely. Of all the excellent vocals in the company, her lovely, crystalline voice is the standout.

Enter Anatole (Gunnar Manchester), a hedonistic hottie who is smitten with Natasha as soon as he lays eyes on her and pursues her despite secretly being married. Although Anatole is a Mr. Wickham (of Pride and Prejudice fame) variety of villain who ends up destroying Natasha’s reputation, Manchester is so likable in the role, you almost want to root for him. It’s not a stretch to believe Natasha could fall for his charm.

The other titular character, Pierre (Rodney Witherspoon II), takes on more of an observer’s role for most of the show. He is sort of on the sidelines of the action, trying to find meaning among the frivolity of the upper echelons of society while trapped in a loveless marriage. However, the moments where he takes center stage are some of the most affecting. His soliloquy, “Dust and Ash,” a song added for the Broadway production once Josh Groban was cast in the role, is simply gorgeous, with such impactful lyrics as “They say we are asleep until we fall in love/And I’m so ready/To wake up now.” The song comes after a duel with the sharpshooting Dolokhov (Anna Basile) who is openly involved with Pierre’s wife, the lascivious Helene (Anna Slate). When he finally beholds that third title character, the Great Comet itself, his look of awe is enough to make that lone lightbulb feel like an astronomical wonder, forming a gorgeous stage picture to end on (kudos to lighting and sound designer Andy Russ, for both the simplistic beauty of this moment and the literally flashier moments of the club scenes).

Another standout in the cast is Barker as Sonya, who is so expressive, it gives a whole new dimension to her love for her cousin; when Natasha is in pain, it is easy to see how much it tears Sonya apart.

Rounding out the cast are Teddy Lytle as Balaga the driver, who has a whole fun and insanely catchy number devoted to his exploits, and Ian Doran, Sophie Jackson and Christine Treglia making up the ensemble, taking on roles such as opera performers and servants, as well as understudying for a few major roles each.

Many of the cast prove themselves to be not just triple threats but quadruple threats, as many of them wield instruments throughout the performance as well.

Meg Donnelly’s costume design, while not quite as fancy and flashy as previous productions (the fur coat referenced in one number is not even a fur coat), serves to highlight the blend of modern and period-appropriate, pairing sneakers with waistcoats, not to mention those quirky race car socks worn by Balaga, along with the tone of Malloy’s lyrics and electropop score.

Great Comet is probably not a show for everyone. It is innovative and unlike anything else that’s ever hit a Broadway stage. More than anything, it is a spectacle and an experience. It’s not a feel good story, but it still manages to be fun. While the characters could easily become tropey caricatures, especially since what’s on display is only a thin slice of a whole story, in the hands of this cast and Short’s direction, they feel dynamic, and in this particular production, the novelty of the staging does not overpower their talent. 

The Wilbury Theatre Group’s production of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 runs at the WaterFire Arts Center through June 19. For tickets, visit Masks and proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test are required.