Comet on the Horizon

The Canadian premiere of Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 has been a long time in the making.

What: Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812
Where: Crow’s Theatre, 345 Carlaw Ave.
When: Tue., Dec. 5 until at least Sun., Jan. 7
Why you should go: Eccentric musical adaption of War and Peace makes Canadian premiere with Hailey Gillis starring as Natasha.

THE CANADIAN PREMIERE of Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 has been a long time in the making.

Dave Malloy’s eccentric, sung-through musical adaptation of a 70-page snippet from War and Peace was slated to play at Toronto’s Winter Garden Theatre in early 2021. The pandemic blocked that attempt; but the show’s producers, Crow’s Theatre and the Musical Stage Company, are giving it another go this December with a production helmed by Chris Abraham.

Great Comet will run at the Guloien Theatre, the main performance space at Streetcar Crowsnest in Leslieville. While the Winter Garden seats just under 1,000, the Guloien’s capacity tends to hover around 200. This extra intimacy makes sense for a show that premiered at the 99-seat Ars Nova in New York four years before hitting Broadway to significant critical success in 2016.

“It feels right to have it be at Crow’s because it takes those two extremes and sort of synthesizes them,” says cast member Hailey Gillis in a mid-rehearsal interview at Streetcar Crowsnest. “It’s got that ‘reach for the commercial stars’ of big theatre but also that amazing indie feel … the Winter Garden is a beautiful space, but this is where it’s supposed to be. Now it feels right.”

Gillis plays the titular Natasha, a 19-year-old betrothed to a soldier away at war. Visiting Moscow in 1812, she meets another man, the hot and hedonistic Anatole. Love, drama and lots else ensue — as the show’s opening number instructs over a punchy accordion beat and the smell of vodka, “It’s a complicated Russian novel / Everyone’s got nine different names / So look it up in your program / We’d appreciate it, thanks a lot!”

That song gives Natasha the label of “young”; likewise, you could call her an ingenue. But Gillis sees more in her. “She’s young and old. She’s got an old soul, but she’s got this mercurial way of thinking about things and reacting to things,” says Gillis. “I think she’s quite incredible. And I think what the music offers — what Dave Malloy has created — is this immense, emotional, beautiful, chaotic, melodic world for her to live in.”

This isn’t Gillis’s first Malloy adventure. In 2019, she starred in a Marie Farsi-directed Crow’s Theatre production of the composer’s knotty song cycle Ghost Quartet. Gillis shares that the best way to watch that complexly structured musical is to give up on interpretation and let the spectral four-part harmonies wash over you.

Great Comet is different. It moves fast but Gillis thinks it forces audiences to come along for the ride and really invest. “That’s what it’s doing … it’s like: ‘Come with me now, it’s gonna be really fun, but you gotta keep up, let’s go.’ And then at the end, it spits you out,” she says. “I think you have no choice but to get on the train of the show and then get off when it’s over.”