Leo Tolstoy did not foresee this. An adaptation of his 1869 novel War and Peace is delighting 21st-century crowds as an electropop opera called Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812.
“It’s based on one of the most well-known books ever,” says choreographer Shannon Guggenheim. “When you say War and Peace, people, maybe they haven’t read it, but they know what it is.”
Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 opens at 3Below Theaters this Thursday. Set to be the crown jewel of San Jose Playhouse’s 2023 series, it was written by celebrated lyricist, composer, playwright and actor Dave Molloy and nominated for 12 Tony Awards after its Broadway premiere. San Jose Playhouse is among the first West Coast companies to stage the show.
The project of dramatizing one of the densest pieces of Russian literature has been an exhilarating challenge for the company’s cast and crew.
The plot zooms in on a 70-page slice of War and Peace (Part Eight for those keeping track) following the ravishing ingenue Natasha Rostova through a scandalous fall from grace and consequent romance with world-weary Pierre Bezukhov. Set in Moscow in 1812, the high-drama situation unfolds against the backdrop of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.
“It’s a really interesting little chunk out of a big book,” Guggenheim says.
Many innovative design elements under the direction of Scott Evan Guggenheim add to the intrigue. The show is billed as “fully immersive,” and that is no metaphor.
“We’ve built a runway through the first four rows, and then a bridge making a ‘T’ off of that runway,” Guggenheim explains. Enhancing the immersive effect, the set decoration extends far into the house, giving audience members the experience of being in 19th-century Moscow alongside the actors.
“Usually you’re on the other side of that fourth wall, but this time you really get to be a part of it,” Guggenheim says. These decisions were inspired, in part, by the fact that the original Broadway production was staged in the round, a form of theater in which the audience sits arena-style all around the stage.
As the show’s choreographer, Guggenheim reveled in the freedom of movement such a set-up inspired.
“I haven’t choreographed a show like this before. It’s like doing a three-ring circus! There’s always a focal moment happening onstage, but then I have people in the aisles doing something, and there’s people on the bridge doing something and there’s people up on the stairs doing something…”
The immersive design invites the audience into a piece of literature many dread for its length and intricacy.
“War and Peace can be a little dense,” Guggenheim acknowledges, “so you gotta find ways to make it accessible, to make it interesting, to tell this story—and it’s a great story.”
Yet another significant way this production enlivens and updates Tolstoy’s work is Molloy’s award-winning score, which the actors help perform by playing their own instruments in addition to singing.
“What’s wonderful about the script—and when I say, ‘script,’ what I really mean is the singing, because almost every single word is sung in the show—is it’s got opera vibes without being operatic,” says Guggenheim. Instead, it is a catchy fusion of rock, pop, soul, folk and EDM.
San Jose Playhouse is acutely aware of the global context in which this show opens. “We kind of looked at each other, going, ‘Gosh, this really feels like an odd time to be doing anything that even remotely celebrates Russia,’” Guggenheim says.
However, mirroring recent plays like Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 aims to excavate silenced histories and illuminate unexpected sides of well-known stories. “This show is so unusual,” Guggenheim says. “Even though it’s set in Russia in 1812, the concept of this show take[s] everything off-kilter.”
Guggenheim’s choreography represents a genre-defying fusion of eras. “For me, this show is right where I want to live. It’s so free,” she says.
With the cast dancing through the aisles and the promise of a historic comet on the horizon, audience members are sure to forget any reservations about Tolstoy’s work. As Guggenheim promises: “You’re in the story.”
Opens Thu, 7:30pm, $25
Through May 28
3Below Theaters, San Jose