A Queer Vietnamese-Houstonian-New Yorker Writer musing about the arts and absurdities when not screenwriting or playwrighting

THE COMET OF 1812 on the Day of Oak Onaodowan’s Final Bow

And so the comet flies by.

In Dave Malloy’s Natasha and Pierre and the Comet of 1812, the plot operates on a rudimentary opera blueprint with hard-on archetypes, lifted from about 40-70 pages (according to reported estimates from the mouth of its previous leading star Josh Groban) of Leo Tolstoy’s doorstopping War and Peace.

But while I am not normally a fan of soap-operatic beats in musicals, the quality and originality of the plot of Comet of 1812 is nearly irrelevant to the intended sensory-immersive experience of the musical, which, through its non-proscenium stage design, unravels the meta-awareness of the function of theater to its delightful extreme, so the plot is more or less just a vehicle of the experience.

So I witnessed the August 13 matinee.

Pre-Show

It starts with me forgetting my Dracula paperback, which I intended to read while waiting for the show to start in the Imperial Theater.

So I uploaded War and Peace on my IBooks and begun the first chapter.

Once I entered the theater toward my mezzanine seat, I noted that a man in front of me took out his DSLR and snapped a blatant flash photography. And I immediately inquired him if photography was actually allowed in here, since going off on one previous Broadway experience (Catch Me If You Can), theaters tended to be strict about snapping photos of the theater. But I found that as long there are no actors on stage, photography was a yes.

So I captured this Russian club design. I’m used to the standard prosceniums, boxes, thrust stages, but I’ve never seem anything like this before. The layout allows as much audience omniscience to the audience interaction as it can.

And then the actors popped out. One actor threw boxes of dumplings at the crowd (unfortunately I wasn’t one of the lucky ones who caught it) and instructed them to eat them at home. They traveled to the seating to relay safety instructions, including the warnings of a strobe light effect. An actor came up near our aisle to point out, “show happens here, keep feet, bags, personalities within your area so I can live.”

And the siren blared. Showtime was near.

Act 1 begins…

“Prologue” – Ensemble

Once the grand doors opened, Okieriete Onaodowan as Pierre emerges with his accordion and his spectacles. Everyone in the room showered him with the obligatory thunderous “it’s his final day” applause before he even squeezed the accordion as Benton as Natasha entered with Andrei (Nicolas Belton, who also doubles as crazy Bolkonsky, Andrei’s father).

There were also mad cheers for Sonya’s Ingrid Michaelson, whom I also learned shortly during pre-show that she was also undergoing her final performance.

“Pierre” – Pierre, Ensemble

What I found to be a really clever visual that prevails throughout most of the opening is that Pierre sings “frozen at the center” right as he plays the piano at the core of the stage and stays there for quite some time.

“Moscow” – Marya D., Natasha, Sonya

So finally seeing the context of the lyrics play set some perspective. When I initially listened to the pre-Broadway soundtrack with Dave Malloy,

But now seeing the mechanics of the stage and the abstract blocking with concrete lyrics makes it come together.

“The Private and Intimate Life of the House” – Bolkonsky, Mary

This number in the soundtrack particular broke me, because I knew in this play, while Mary (played by a sweet sounding Courtney Bassett here) at least mends her first bad impression with Natasha, Mary’s misery never receives its resolution or salvation, unlike the original book (yeah, by ironically marrying poor lonely Sonya’s old flame).

What occurs in this number is quite thematic to the later bigger picture, where Bolkonsky is this terrible senile old man who abuses his daughter, who is fully lucid about the drudgery of the task and only sincere piety and love keeps her going. But while I wouldn’t stay to care for a man like Bolkonsky, it’s a testament to Mary fortitude that she still decides to love him–“I dare to judge him, I disgust myself”–but it takes a lot of damn labor to do so.

Also, the really dark accusatory humor of the audience made the scene both cringey and chuckle-inducing, with Mary going down to one of the audience pit and an audience member suddenly becomes “her suitor” that Bolkonsky yells at, before the old man goes off and mimes seducing another audience member, provoking Mary to yells “She’s using you, Papa, wants your money, Papa!”

“Natasha & Bolkonskys” – Mary, Natasha, Bolkonsky

So this scene has Benton and Bassett enter through an occupied onstage tavern table seatings with stools, sitting alongside baffled audience members, singing their tension from across the table. This created a really unique effect during the repeat of “constrained, constrained,” when Bassett very visibly has to squeeze between too audience members chairs. It’s also really amusing to see the audience members scoot to make space. It’s incredible how they worked with the spatial relationship with the audience seating.

“No One Else” – Natasha

Do I really need to remind you how gorgeous Benton’s vocals are in this lovely innocent ballad where she sings to a lover who isn’t even there, making her sing to the concept of love more than to her love?

Also, at the beat where Benton sings, “We were angels once, don’t you remember?” she made eye contact with an audience member in the tavern pit and she gave a very comical visible nod, that was chuckle-worthy.

“The Opera” – Natasha, Sonya, Marya D., Hélène, Ensemble

I was really looking forward to seeing this sequence in particular due to its bizarre, deliberately spooky “true art is comprehensible” orchestration in the soundtrack. Yup, and despite some lyrics passing some context, it’s pretty weird, with like an archbishop dressed in a quilt and like random flushes of spotlights and black-outs.

If there is a song that sums up the entire musical, “The Opera” is the one. It’s completely a sensory experience at its most primal form, which is the goal of the Comet of 1812.

There’s a particularly extremely neat visuals not conveyed in the lyrics, where suddenly, in the middle of the opera, we see a dusty Andrei emerge and actors yanking red ribbons from his torn uniform and a distraught Natasha reaching toward him. This really works with the active spatiality versus the lyrical concrete spatiality (Natasha is technically sitting in the imaginary opera box according to lyrics, but blocking-wise, she’s in constant movement).

Right after the rather perplexing, nearly contextless scene, Natasha and Sonya’s verses poetically describes a meta-nod to the what the torrent of emotions that words can barely capture.

“I cannot follow the opera, or even listen to the music… so false and unnatural, and everyone else seems oblivious, yet everyone feigns delight… I’m feeling the flood of brilliant lights…”

And the immersive lighting illuminates all the strange wordless torrent that only Sonya could describe as “Natasha passing into a state of intoxication.” That’s the musical, invoking this drunkness, which you can’t explain.

And then there’s that pivotal inciting incident where, from an overwhelming flood of light from the grand door, “hot, spender of women and wine” Anatole (a gorgeous Lucas Steele) struts into the scene, literally in context of the opera and the entire show, in “the middle of the act.”

“Natasha & Anatole” – Natasha, Anatole

This was a really intense soap operatic moment, where the beats of clanks serve Natasha’s attempt to process these strange new feelings, and having been swarmed by the indecipherable emotions of the opera, starts to plunge into new sentiments with Anatole around. She misinterpret her stirrings, which the audience suspects is sexual tension, as a spark, for she has never been this close to a man, or even has a man approach her in this manner.

I winced when Anatole playfully demanded her hair-flower as a pledge to see him again. And then he plucks it without her consent. But subtly enough, he does return it to her, and that baits her trust.

(It’s worth noting that right here this was the estimated chasm of the cut song “Natasha Lost,” which I believe was reduced to a few verses here).

“The Duel” – Anatole, Dolokhov, Pierre, Hélène, Ensemble

In a deliberate shower of excess, this marks the really discomforting strobe-light scene and Russians dashing into the scene with modern club get-up. And Hamilton-style, there’s a duel (without the casualties or the tides of history) between Dolokhov and Pierre, with the latter miraculously winning despite all odds against him.

There was particular point where about 10 rows down from me, Onaodowan just suddenly popped up before my eyes, and I was too busied with below active flashy scenery to process that he climbed to the mezzanine seating area.

“Dust and Ashes” – Pierre, Ensemble

Ah, the golden song number I was looking forward to, as this was the first song number I discovered of the musical.

Onaodowan, almost like Dave Malloy, has a very guttural voice, and he consistently embodies this lost and drained-of-life man locked in a constant search to fulfill his soul, humiliated that his thoughtless revelry and reckless suicidal pursuit of a fatal game was nothing more but a shallow distraction, something that did make him happy.

I got goosebumps when the angelic chorus of the ensemble, who were standing in shadows a few feet away from me, vocalized.

“Sunday Morning” – Natasha, Sonya, Marya D.

Grace McLean as Marya bombastic “Time for church” makes me laugh.

“Charming” – Hélène

Amber Gray as Helene is killer here. I also have this Twitter note.

“The Ball” – Natasha, Anatole

So this is where I get to a nitpick. When the ensemble ventured to the front of the mezzanine area to waltz in front of us, I couldn’t really see the action down on the central stage where Natasha and Anatole dance. It might have been different for those on seatings above me.

“There is no barrier between us.” Yeah, well, there was a barrier between me and the view.

Act II

“Letters” – Natasha, Pierre, Mary, Anatole, Ensemble

So as Natasha reads a letter, she climbed to the mezzanine area and I was hoping she might get close to my area. Alas, she only went to the length of the front mezzanine.

So I was saddened that I wasn’t one of those in the audience who got a letter. It rubbed salt in the wounds when I saw an audience later at the backstage door getting her prop letter signed by the actors.

I almost missed it, focusing on the letter-giving around me and praying that a letter would reach me, but the audience just bust into random applause and I couldn’t see the context. My guess is that it was because of Lucas Steele’s reentrance because it was around that time he was initiating one of the musical’s most powerful riff. Everyone loved his repetition of “Just say yeeeeeeeeeees.”

“Sonya & Natasha” – Sonya, Natasha

Admittedly, when listening to the soundtrack, I kinda burst out laughing when Natasha childishly and churlishly goes straight for the “I hate you, you’re my enemy forever,” a line from the source material. And seeing this live… yeah, dramatically narmy here.

“Sonya Alone” – Sonya

She may lack Brittain Ashford’s inherent inflection timidity (casting-wise, this is nothing against Michaelson’s abilities), but Michaelson has a sweet, gorgeous voice filled with loyalty and brokenness over the lost of her friend. Again, as this was Michaelson final performance, there was a huge pause to applaud for her.

“Preparations,” “Balaga,” and “The Abduction” – Balaga, Anatole, Dolokhov, Ensemble

And like me not getting a letter, I didn’t get one of the egg-shaped shakers in the Pass Me baskets. I am sad. I didn’t get dumplings, shakers, or a letter.

Also, during the “wait, we have to shut the door, and sit down, it’s a Russian custom,” Antatole took his seat next to a woman in the banquette seating. And he smiles at her, and she actually smiles at him back. And he mimes putting his arm over her shoulder.

“In My House” – Marya D., Natasha, Sonya

I have to say, the sequence is as uncomfortable and intense as it was in the soundtrack and Marya really sells it.

“Pierre & Anatole” – Pierre, Anatole

Steele hits a particularly phenomenally high note at the end.

“Pierre & Andrey” – Andrey, Pierre

Oh hai, Andrei, how’s the war going?

I got particular chills at how Onaodowan’s delivers “And he [Andrei] smiled maliciously like his father,” which calls back to the actor doubling as the cruel father, to refuse to forgive Natasha. After all, it’s awful that a man claims a moral and then openly admits that he can’t even try to commit to it.

“Pierre & Natasha” – Pierre, Natasha

Damn it, Pierre telling Natasha that he would ask for her love. It’s the payoff to “Dust and Ashes” and Natasha’s dream of love. Natasha doesn’t just receive emotional recovery just because that a man has persuaded her of her worth, but that now she herself has seen what love truly is. It doesn’t come in the fanciful form of seizing her away from the function of life to an immediate flight or flattery that silences her. It comes in the wordless form of distance and time and that there’s a wait to it. It takes its time to just look at her straight in the eyes. Love is not this game of irrationality. Love is beyond reason, but it works toward reason. Pierre, in turn, finally wakes up. Because we’re asleep until we fall in love.

And this gets to brilliance of extracting only a fraction of a long novel. I’ve seen a decent Tolstoy’s opera adaptation of Anna Karenina that crammed in its plot beats. Most book-to-musicals adaptations would compress in all the beginnings, middles, and end.

And this serves the dynamic between Natasha and Pierre. Note that this is the only scene in the play where they truly meet face-to-face, despite the allusion to previous meetings and more interaction in the novel, with them as family friends/acquaintances. They met before, but we’re literally seeing them see each other for the first time.

But by never showing the matrimony that Pierre and Natasha are fated to in the source material, we’re left with something inconclusive yet hopeful. It didn’t matter if Natasha would say yes or no to Pierre, or that Pierre would even get the girl and a happy marriage, it mattered that they attained a purer vision of love.

“The Great Comet of 1812” – Pierre, Ensemble

And like a comet, it’s gone, all over. There’s nothing but the cast, the audience, and Onaodowan staring up at a never-to-last glow, an alleged omen that Pierre chooses to see as an optimistic spark.

Post-Performance

To my delight, perhaps maybe because the show was nearing closing, but Denee Benton emerged and it’s reportedly rare that she ever comes out to do autographs.

View this post on Instagram

Natasha's young… #deneebenton

A post shared by Carol Cao (@maximininalist) on

Lucas Steele just whizzed past by without making eye contact with everyone and didn’t touch the playbills extended to him. At first, I thought he may have been too busy and just wanted to leave. But turns out, he just preferred to start signing and selfie-ing down the other side.

Ingrid Michaelson emerged to sign autographs though security notified us that she had no time to poise selfies.

I was so starstruck by Onaodowan’s emergence. By coincidence, the backstage door was right next to the Richard Rodgers theater playing Hamilton, where he once played Hercules Mulligan. I could even hear the cheers of fans standing at the barriers as Hamilton actors emerged.

I wanted to do a selfie video, but it went so fast and I wasn’t sure if he and I were able to process if a stable shot took place.

Thus, this shaky result on Instagram.

Like a comet vanishing into the void, it’s all over.

Miscellaneous Musings

  • I believe it was around the “Opera” sequence, but there is a cool effect where the lantern-candle down the glass tables started to flicker, making it clear it wasn’t just decoration, it was a stealthily a function of the entire lightning design.
  • I regret not taking a photo, but they had a vendor lady with one of those snack-boxes. So yes, they sold snacks inside the theater. It had Russian fare like… Pringles, M&Ms, and Twizzlers. Russian food is weird.
  • I suspect that pre-show/intermission photos were permitted for marketing purposes. I mean, look at the likes on my Instagram photos!
  • I laughed when I saw paperbacks of War and Peace books at the merchandizing table. Because the Imperial Theater had Wifi, I uploaded a Gutenberg copy of the public domain book for, like, $0.

And I’m still returning to the story.

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