There’s a war going on…

How The Great Comet has become a Canadian phenomenon

As you walk the cold, blustery east Toronto streets, you reach a large building with a white marquee, edged in red light. It reads: Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812. You enter a cosy, modern lobby, as you join the queue of excited audience members. Some are there for the first time, while others are already planning for which seat they want to run towards when the doors open. The air is thick with anticipation. As you enter, you are brought into a world of rich red velvet curtains, dusty mirrors, gilded staircases, and chandeliers. But what is Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, why does it have such a long name, and why should you care?

Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 — or simply, Great Comet — is a musical based on an 80-page splice of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. While on the surface, that might seem dull or old-fashioned, the musical is anything but. With its (as described by composer Dave Malloy) electropop opera score and intimate interactivity, it is a precious gem of a show that hit Broadway back in November 2016, helmed by Josh Groban and Denée Benton. That production, however, was fraught with casting controversies and economic struggles, which led to its closure less than a year later, in September 2017. I was lucky enough to see it the week before it closed, and today, the show has a bit of a cult following of passionate fans. 

This Crow’s Theatre and The Musical Stage Company produced Canadian premiere has stolen audiences’ hearts. I have now seen this production twice and cannot recommend it enough. Chris Abraham’s brilliant direction takes the show back to its roots: a showcase of wit and beauty that draws you in to take each breath with the performers. Evan Buliung’s Pierre is brimming with frustration, malaise, and hope as he drinks at his piano and taps at your phone screen. Hailey Gillis’s Natasha soars as you desperately wish you could warn her, and yet deeply understand the mistakes she makes. Camille Eange-Selenge is a warm and heartbreaking Sonya. “Canada’s First Lady of musical theatre” Louise Pitre, and her replacement Donna Garner bring elegance and truth to Marya D. Divine Brown (Hélène) is an absolute powerhouse who had me hanging on to each note with her regal presence and truly death-defying vocal runs. Shondaland, come get your next Bridgerton man, because, as the opening song professes, George Krissa’s Anatole is hot (and charismatic, and devilishly hilarious). Lawrence Libor, and his replacement Tyler Pearse, have transformed Dolokhov into a frat boy dripping with truly indescribable rizz. Heeyun Park is a shining star, for, although Mary is deemed plain and a minor character, her comedic timing and gorgeously expressive voice made her a total stand out. Marcus Nance’s Andrey surprises you with the deeply resonant sound of his voice paired with a stoicism, while Ben Carlson’s Andrey is guarded, but ready to explode. Andrew Penner explodes with energy as Balaga, and the cast is rounded out by ensemble members Rita Dottor and Brendan Wall, who truly never stop engaging the audience. Many of the actors also play various instruments: guitar, cello, clarinet, and accordion, among others are impressively navigated. The show is currently conducted by pianist and Mt. A music alumna, Rachel O’Brien, who fearlessly commands the driver’s seat of the show. 

Emma Yee – Argosy Chief Editor

I can also give a quick review of the show’s two signature drinks, created by Crow’s Theatre’s Bar Manager Ted Hallett. The Vodkow Comet, including Vodkow premium vodka, triple sec, lemon, blood orange and prosecco, was light and refreshing. The Vodkow Espresso Maple Martini comprised of Vodkow premium vodka, Vodkow maple cream, organic maple syrup, kahlùa, and espresso, was decadent and energizing. Both were sweet, but balanced, and definitely got me ready to clap, toast, and egg shake along to Act Two. 

While the Crow’s Theatre production was supposed to close January 7, it has been dutifully extended and sold out week after week. Currently, the production’s end date is March 24, although, if past extension announcements are anything to go by, that may not be its final closing show. The musical has become a bit of a Canadian phenomenon, finding continued success and fanatic audiences outside of its Broadway fans. I noticed that the re-injection of humour, and the attention to intimate acting feel specifically Canadian in theatrical style. Perhaps the show provides an escape. The opening lines are “There’s a war going on, out there, somewhere,” and that could not be truer for contemporary audiences. Or perhaps the Great Comet simply encourages a sense of wonder, love of people, beauty, and art, that Canadian audiences need right now. While not everyone will get to see this production, at the very least, I invite you to go to the Crow’s Theatre social media and check out their production photos and music video of the song “Charming,” or listen to the original cast and Broadway cast albums of the musical. “This bright star… seems suddenly to have stopped, like an arrow piercing the earth, stopped for me.” 

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