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Performing Arts

Tolstoy and the great American musical

“Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” cast members: standing left, Lilia Reynolds (Sonya Rostova), right, Warren Rockett (Anatole Kuragin). Seated left, Harrison Wendt (Pierre Bezukhov) and seated right, Katelyn Bowie (Natasha Rostova). (Courtesy of Michael McKelvey, Fort Lewis College)
FLC stages major work based on a Russian love story

“There’s a war going on … out there somewhere.”

The timeless sentiment in the opening song of “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” sets the stage for a complex, immersive theater work based on Leo Tolstoy’s 1869 masterpiece “War and Peace.” Composer/lyricist David Malloy has created a contemporary electropop American musical as if it were a Russian sleigh speeding through a tumultuous human saga. To say “Comet” is a thrilling theater experience is an understatement.

“Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” runs only five performances, April 3 to 7, on the Fort Lewis College MainStage in the Drama Building. So, a chance to see this unusual work is limited.


WHAT: “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812,” a musical by David Malloy, directed by Michael E. McKelvey, Fort Lewis College Department of Performing Arts.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. April 3-6, 2 p.m. April 6; 5 p.m. April 7.

WHERE: MainStage Theatre, FLC Drama Building, 1000 Rim Drive.

TICKETS: $10 to $28. Available online at www.durangoconcerts.com.

MORE INFORMATION: Visit www.fortlewis.edu/theatre or call 247-7657.

“I’ve waited six years to direct this one,” Director Michael McKelvey said. “It’s a tricky show to follow by the audience, as well as a unique theatrical experience. So, it’s very important to me that everyone understands what this show is before they come to see it.”

“Comet” takes a bit over two hours to perform. It is not the gigantic, five-hour opera like Prokofiev’s 1944 “War and Peace.” Inspired by Hitler’s attempt to invade Russia as Napoleon before him in 1812, Prokofiev endeavored to set the vast Tolstoyan landscape to music. He revised it until his death in 1953, but the Russian composer never saw it performed successfully.

American composer/lyricist Malloy adapted a limited section of Tolstoy’s novel for his musical interpretation. Chapters 19 to 22 focus on a love triangle involving Natasha Rostova (Katelyn Bowie), her fiance Andrey Bolkonsky (Ethan Vichek), and the predatory Anatole Kuragin (Warren Rockett). Crucial to the story is an older friend of the Rostov family, Pierre Bezukhov (Harrison Wendt). He is the Pierre of the title who sees disaster on the horizon.

Illustration of Leo Tolstoy, author of “War and Peace.” (Courtesy of Judith Reynolds)

Malloy, 48, adapted the 70-page section from Tolstoy’s 1,000-page novel. A graduate of Ohio University with a double degree in music composition and literature, his story goes that he was reading the novel while playing piano on Celebrity Cruise ships from 2001 to 2005.

“You can read about this if you like,” Malloy writes on his website. “I played in the showband, backing up quasi-virtuoso violinists playing ‘Lord of the Dance’ medleys, Motown medleys … and ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ medleys. Afterward, everyone went to the crew bar and got drunk on dollar Heinekens.”

Katelyn Bowie (Natasha Rostova) and Warren Rockett (Anatole Kuragin) perform in “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.” (Courtesy of Michael McKelvey, Fort Lewis College)

His other break-time hobby was reading the classics, including Tolstoy. Little did Malloy know that he was at the beginning of a highly successful future as a major force in American musical theater. By now, he has composed 20 musicals, many of which are based on major literary works – “Moby Dick,” to name one.

Malloy’s early inspiration to adapt Tolstoy for the stage persisted. He notes elsewhere that Pierre’s existential search for meaning appealed to him, and it is at the heart of “Comet.” The storyline begins with Natasha’s sad farewell to her fiance as he goes off to war and swiftly moves to the potentially ruinous romance with a married man, the rogue Anatole, and the likely downfall of several families.

If you re-read Tolstoy’s Chapters 19 to 22, you’ll notice how closely Malloy incorporated the text. One could call Tolstoy the librettist. Or, better yet, attend the show and settle into a rich Russian atmosphere where the story will unfold.

FLC music professor Wesley Dunnagan will conduct the 10-piece orchestra. Set and lighting designer James Padilla has built a multilayered set that creates the illusion of a Russian supper club. Costumer Megan Sander and sound designer Logan Roybal will work their visual and sonic worlds to support McKelvey’s concept. And choreographer Suzy DiSanto will balance motion and stillness to tell the story of “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.”

Durango High School graduate and FLC freshman Katelyn Bowie

Katelyn Bowie will perform the role of Natasha Rostova in the FLC production of “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.” To say this is important to the Durango High School graduate and first-year student at FLC is an understatement.

“When I auditioned, dancing came first, and that was fine,” she said. “But everything was running late. I thought when I sang, I did so horribly. I sang a song from ‘Dr. Zhivago,’ and I planned to play my clarinet, but I forgot it.”

So goes an audition, and Bowie said she didn’t expect to be called back.

But she was – for the female lead, Natasha.

“Michael (McKelvey, the director) may have sensed my potential,” she said. “And the callback went really well. I got cast.”

At 18, Bowie is close in age to her character. Natasha is 19 in Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” When she arrives in Moscow, she’s out of her element, naive in a sophisticated, urban environment obsessed with status and family reputation. Natasha interacts with all the key figures in the musical, and she expresses delight, euphoria and despair.

The musical challenges every singer in this through-sung work of astonishing, stylistic complexity.

At the FLC Honors Recital on March 10, Bowie performed “Look Love Away” from “Flower Drum Song.” Petite in stature, she dazzled the audience with her musicianship. She gave a quietly dramatic presentation of the bittersweet song and she startled everyone with her fulsome mezzo-soprano. Anyone who was there would not be surprised to learn Bowie will create the role of Natasha Rostova in the spring musical.

Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.