NATASHA, PIERRE AND THE GREAT COMET OF 1812 – Book, Music, and Lyrics by Dave Malloy; Directed by Lynne Collins; Music Direction by David Nehls; Choreography by Grady Soapes. Produced by the Arvada Center (6901 Wadsworth, Arvada) through March 31. Tickets available at 720-898-7200 or 

This is not a play – not simply a play. It is an adventure – a celebration – an explosive theatrical experience. You don’t just sit in your seats and placidly watch. From the beginning, you are involved, you clap, you are impassioned to sing along after being taught the song, you laugh, you cry, but, most of all, you EXPERIENCE. 

Opulent is the word that comes to mind when I think about my night with NATASHA. Walking into the Black Box theatre, you are immediately aware that there is nothing black left in the Black Box. It’s all a gorgeous burgundy/red color that reeks opulence and decadence. Not suggesting anything about Scenic Designer Brian Mallgrave’s (or my) life experiences, but it looks like the inside of a brothel . . . a very expensive brothel. Exploring the fun of theatre in-the-round, a five-piece orchestra sits in a “pit” in the middle of the stage (how much fun it would have been to have had them in Russian costumes as well) with the music and dancing swirling around them. Occasionally Music Director David Nehls will leave his post at the piano, deferring to an actor to accompany him or herself for a song. 

But while some “songs” are easily determined, for the most part, these are not songs, but dialogue set to music. They may announce how someone is feeling, carry on a musical conversation, have someone in the ensemble explain what is going on and the cultural implications of someone’s actions. It started early in the evening when instead of verbally reciting the list of sponsors and instructions to the audience about phones, feet in the aisles, etc., it was all sung with great enthusiasm by the entire company. Wait, I forgot – it actually started even before that. As the audience arrives, they are warmly welcomed into the space by members of the company carrying musical instruments, strolling around, making conversation, practicing a little, showing off their costumes, extoling the virtues of vodka, just generally being rowdy and having fun. Immediately, the chaos of the pre-show gives the audience an understanding of what they are in for during the rest of the show. 

And it does not disappoint. The action never lets up. It may slow down a little in places to make a point about someone being hurt by someone else’s words or actions. For instance, Sonya, Natasha’s best friend, has a lovely song about her fear of what her friend has got herself into. But then a few minutes later, a boisterous troika driver (Brian Watson) arrives and engages them all in a song built around his exploits of driving his horses all over the country in service to Anatole and his friends.

This cast makes the evening come alive. This musical story soars from their throats; each player contributes to the storytelling; each player brings their own musical talent to the stage with French horn, cello, violin, percussive instruments, piano and more. Bella Hathorne is a breathtakingly beautiful Natasha. Jack Wardell is a selfish and thoughtless ego driven fool – but oh-so-hot! Anna Maria High embraces the role of opera diva and fiercely protective friend to Natasha. Nicole deBree is the amazingly sexual but unfaithful wife of Pierre. Brian Watson’s turn as the old lecherous Prince Bolkonsky was a hilarious high point.  

While the more obvious story is the blossoming of the forbidden romance (she is promised; he is secretly married) between Natasha and Anatole, thought must be given to the plight of Pierre. Trapped in a loveless marriage, fighting against and giving into alcohol too often, caught in the malaise of an unfulfilled life, he wavers between depression and drunkenness. His sorrow seems to be because he can look back and see his mistakes and the lost potential; the future is slow in realizing itself to him. If the story were being told about a man in 2012 instead, it could be said he was suffering a mid-life crisis. But he rises out of his own self-pity to offer consolation to Natasha in how she has destroyed her own opportunities by reminding her that she has her whole life in front of her. Despite what she feels now, at 19 her possibilities are unlimited. He reminds her that she is beautiful and young and that if he were a better (not younger) man, he would ask for her hand in marriage. Her gratitude for his kindness and forgiveness fills the room. In that simple act of kindness toward another and the arrival of the comet, he begins to see that he too has time left to find a different ending for himself. “It seems to me that this comet feels me, feels my softened and uplifted soul and my newly melted heart now blossoming into a new life.” “I gaze joyfully” as the show closes. Brett Ambler brings Pierre’s story to life with graciousness and dogged determination. It is such a pleasure to see him return to the Arvada stage.

Beautiful stories, beautiful people, beautiful costumes, beautiful music, beautiful set . . . what more could you ask for? I could say much more about this amazing script and this brilliant interpretation, but I’ve told you what you can expect by attending. It’s up to you now. This is a crowning achievement for the Arvada Center who consistently build their reputation as THE place to go for outstanding theatre. 

A WOW factor of 9.5!! 

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