116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812.” If you think the title is a mouthful, you should be one of the singers. They go nearly non-stop for more than two hours, except for a 15-minute intermission.
Described as an ”electropop opera, based on a scandalous slice of Leo Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace,’ ” it is weirdly wonderful in all the best ways — viewed through the pop kaleidoscope of “Moulin Rouge” and “The Greatest Showman,” but even harder and more colorful than those pop movies.
What: Musical, “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812”
Where: Riverside Theatre, 119 E. College St., Iowa City
When: To May 8; 7:30 p.m. Thursday to Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $15 to $40, Riverside Box Office, (319) 259-7099 or riversidetheatre.org/natashapierreandthegreatcometof1812
COVID requirements: Masks, ID and proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 test within the past 72 hours
Extras: Post-show discussion led by Anna Barker, professor of Russian literature at the University of Iowa, May 7
The music is so hard that it’s easy to see why Riverside Theatre is just the third professional troupe to present this show after its Broadway run. The show debuted off-Broadway in 2012, then sprang up in tents in other New York hot spots before landing on Broadway in 2016 with Josh Groban as Pierre. Nominated for a slew of awards, it won 2017 Tonys for scenic and lighting design.
It’s hard to imagine this show in a traditional theater setting. Riverside Theatre’s new home on the Ped Mall is the perfect place for getting back to the play’s original immersive experience, in which the actors move among the viewers. As actor Kristen Behrendt DeGrazia said to me after Friday’s opening production, the audience becomes part of the cast.
It’s also hard to imagine anyone in the area other than Riverside’s elite team of actors, directors, designers, musicians and production staff tackling this demanding show. They have soared alongside the comet on a fiery trajectory that brought cheers throughout Friday’s opening night performance, and an immediate standing ovation afterward from the nearly sold-out audience.
Dave Malloy’s visionary music and script turns Tolstoy’s story on its head, and brilliant director Christopher Okiishi runs with it. Leslie Nolte choreographed the show, but no one’s better than Okiishi at choreographing the way actors move through their playing space -- engaging with the audience, especially those seated in the cabaret tables onstage.
The setting, designed by S. Benjamin Farrar, is reminiscent of an opulent, dark red Russian tea room/nightclub where the actors gather to tell the story of naive, young Natasha Rostova (Niyati Deshpande) who has come to Moscow to await the return of her fiance, Andrey, from the front lines during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.
But during a night at the opera, where everything is dripping in decadence, Natasha catches the eye of the scoundrel Anatole Kuragin (Tyler Jensen), and her world comes crashing down around her.
It’s up to family friend Pierre Bezukhov (Patrick Du Laney) to sweep up the remnants of her shattered reputation. But he’s in the middle of his own existential crisis, and seeing the young people scurrying about their wild lives makes him long for a return to the life he’s left behind.
Along the way, we meet Moscow’s gaudy aristocracy oozing out of several gnarled family trees. The sophisticated hilarity begins at the top of the show, where everything you need to know about the characters is explained in the whirlwind “Prologue.” As the song suggests, all of this is spelled out in the program, which includes a family tree.
In addition, Jill Van Brussel’s gorgeous costumes give viewers a clue not only to the characters, but to their stations in life. My favorite is worn by Andrey’s father and Natasha’s future father-in-law, Old Prince Bolkonsky. He rolls around the stage half in and out of consciousness, dressed in a one-piece union suit (think long johns), a military jacket, sash adorned with medals, and a “fine” powdered gray wig. Robert Kemp is spot-on in this role, and the others he plays, including the seldom-seen Andrey.
All of the actors have at least one named role, and when they aren’t portraying that character, they’re part of the ensemble. In other words, they’re busy all the time. Perhaps no one is as busy as Mary Jane Knight, who not only plays the prince’s daughter, Mary, but also appears veiled from head to toe in the opera, and plays a servant and ensemble member. She also served as voice director for the show.
All of the voices are stunning, and Jensen gets to show off his ballet training as Anatole, as well as his sublime vocals. Du Laney is captivating, as always, and gets to show off his seldom-heard vocal chops.
The orchestra, under the direction of Jason Sifford, is versatile and amazing, as well, handling the eclectic score that Okiishi described to The Gazette as being “like if a klezmer band went to a rave, and then the string section of an orchestra kind of showed up.” Lauren Duffie’s lighting design also transports the action between scenarios in pulsating, vibrant ways.
So what does the comet have to do with all of this? All is revealed in the end, so you’ll just have to go see for yourself. You have until May 8.
Comments: (319) 368-8508; firstname.lastname@example.org