The Great Comet and Me

My daughter and me in our traditional pre-show selfie.

Coming fresh from seeing Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet, produced by the Wilbury Theatre Group in Providence, RI, I take to my blog to tell the world what this show means to me, and why I think everyone should see it if they can.

The Great Comet was created by Dave Malloy. It is an electro-pop opera adaptation of about 90 pages of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. The story is of young, naïve Natasha: in love with her fiancé Andrei but led astray by the hot, feckless Anatole; and Pierre, the depressed, lonely intellectual. I first became aware of the show when it was being workshopped in Boston. A picture of Pippa Soo, who created Natasha, in costume made me instantly curious, as did listening to “Letters” as a promotional download. I never got to see it there, but I did memorize the original cast album, and when it came to Broadway, my husband got us excellent seats. (He forwarded me the tickets with the subject line: “Two tickets to that thing you love.” I saw it again right before it closed, that time with Malloy himself playing Pierre. It was wonderful. It spoke to me like no musical had for a long time.

I have been Natasha: nineteen, silly in love with all the feelings new and bright and sharp. I never cheated on a fiancé, but that’s not to say I didn’t do some pretty dumb things. My crushes are fewer and far between these days, but they can still hit hard. My most recent was timed so that I could adopt Natasha’s “No One Else” as its theme song.

As I get older, I find myself more and more like Pierre: I read a lot, don’t get out as much, and well, I have been getting stouter. I don’t have the drinking problem, but I get the social anxiety, and more the desire to do something, to have my life matter, and the constant worry that I won’t, and it doesn’t. I find myself singing his first number, “Pierre,” to myself in such times. I feel for the character in his darkest moments and I cheer for him at the end, when he makes a connection and rediscovers hope, even if I know it will come and go again over the course of his life. (Yes, I was one of those who read the entirety of War and Peace during the pandemic.)

This show has been an influence on my work, without question. If you read The Night Library of Sternendach: A Vampire Opera in Verse (and I would love it if you did), it too contains letters and a sad character surrounded by books. There’s an Easter egg about Poland. And I wrote the final, bittersweet scene of my book with Pierre’s finale, “The Great Comet,” firmly in mind.

The Great Comet is playing until June 26th in Providence. The space is an intimate black box with seating for about 65 people. I knew going in that it was going to be very different from the flashy spectacle of the Broadway version, but that’s just fine. It’s the story and the music that matter, and both were served exquisitely by the cast and the production. I think Rodney Witherspoon may be my favorite Pierre yet. Kayla Shimizu was a wonderful Natasha, making me feel her final scene so much. The rest of the cast was so good (Anatole’s high notes did not disappoint) and it preserved the audience inclusion that was a hallmark of the original show. Actors moved about the audience, musicians sat next to us. When Natasha sang about the jewels hanging from women’s necks in the opera scene, she pointed to my daughter’s chunky necklace. I blew a kiss to Balaga, and he put it in his pocket.

I recommended this show to my friends, and one of them accompanied my family and me, along with his wife. I felt gratified when he told me he had tears in his eyes during “Dust and Ashes.” The show works, folks. It is funny, and it is sad, and moving. The music is old-fashioned Broadway one minute, and hip-hop the next, with some modernist stuff in the middle. There are at least two accordions. My dad plays accordion, so I’m here for them.

If you’re going to see it, do your research first. As the opening song says, “it’s a complicated Russian novel. Everyone’s got nine different names.” You want to know who the characters are and the gist of the story, in case lyrics get lost. But I hope you’ll seek it out, and maybe find it as inspiring as I do.

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