‘War & Peace’ becomes a stunning cabaret show in Berkeley

A section of Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy’s famously long and complicated masterpiece ‘War and Peace’ might seem like an unlikely source for a Broadway musical, but ‘Natasha, Peter and the Great Comet of 1812’ doesn’t. is no ordinary Broadway musical.

It’s an “electropop opera” sung by composer Dave Malloy, a former Bay Area resident. And as seen in the current production of Shotgun Players at Berkeley, it’s awesome.

Local audiences may already be familiar with Malloy’s dynamic and often humorous oeuvre in a dizzying and eclectic mix of styles. Shotgun created his dazzling “Beowulf – A Thousand Years of Baggage” and Rasputin’s musical “Beardo”. His sublime “Octet” recently came to Berkeley Rep, and “Ghost Quartet” played the Curran a few years ago. And before all that, he was creating inventive new works in spaces ranging from the EXIT Theater to the Willard Middle School Metal Shop.

‘The Great Comet’ gave Malloy his 2016 Broadway debut in an acclaimed production nominated for 12 Tony Awards, including best musical, book, score and orchestrations – and those are just those of Malloy himself. It’s been a long wait for the Bay Area to get a chance to see it, and it seems fitting that Shotgun is the theater to do so.

The show is largely about the young and naive Countess Natalya Ilyinichna Rostova, nicknamed Natasha, seduced by the rake Anatole as she waits for her fiancé Andrey to return from the war against Napoleon’s invading army. The other titular character, Pierre, is a depressed, poorly married man, adrift in his own life.

Co-directors Patrick Dooley (Artistic Director of Shotgun) and Erin Mei-Ling Stuart give the show a luminous staging that literally transforms the Shotgun space.

Nina Ball’s set transforms the theater into an elegant cabaret nightclub with a long runway-style stage with some of the audience seated right next to it and other spectators below like in opera boxes. This elegance is reflected in Jasmine Milan Williams’ costume design, full of colorful dresses and lots of fur coats.

Dooley and Stuart’s staging makes excellent use of space, making the whole experience immersive. Stuart’s lively choreography accentuates the action with courtly dance bits and occasional kick lines.

Part of the seven-piece band led by musical director and pianist Daniel Alley sits in a small circular pit in the center of the stage, while others play on either side of the stage.

Eleven actors play a broad cast of characters, humorously cataloged with short descriptors in a boisterous early ensemble number.

Albert Hodge (who starred in Shotgun’s recent production of “Passing Strange”) exudes ardent grief as the mild-mannered, unhappily married Stone, who remains largely withdrawn from the action as he does from the life. He and Natasha don’t actually interact until almost 2.5 hours into the show, very close to the end.

Jacqueline Dennis is a sweet dreamer as Natasha, dazed by the attention she attracts and touchingly tormented as things inevitably go awry. Veronica Renner is extremely empathetic as Natasha’s concerned friend Sonya, especially when she accompanies herself on acoustic guitar over a beautiful folk-style lament. Michelle Ianiro is a grounded and optimistic presence as Marya, their host as they await the return of their fiancés.

A flirtatious pair of flirtatious siblings struggle to write about themselves. One is Angel Adedokun’s slinking, eyeing Helen, with serpentine movements and a soulful solo number. The other is his brother, Nick Rodrigues as the manipulative and smiling Anatole, a heartless womanizer affecting the ardor of gentlemen.

The entire cast is superb, including Christian Arteaga as the sneering libertine duelist Dolokhov, Roeen Nooran as a haughty servant, and Weston Scott as the crazed carriage driver Balaga. James Mayagoitia doubles as the unflappable, brooding Andrey and his comically grumpy, doddering father, and Danielle Cheiken suffers sympathetically as Andrey’s self-effacing and much-abused sister.

The show is an emotional rollercoaster, by turns hilarious and heartbreaking. It’s all propelled by Malloy’s quirky, gruff and ravishing music, filled with echoes of everything from Russian drinking songs and cabaret to bits of klezmer, minimalism and swing. Malloy fans couldn’t hear him and mistake him for someone else. It’s a joy to live, especially in this space that his work has electrified in the past years.

Contact Sam Hurwitt at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.com/shurwitt.


By Dave Malloy, presented by Shotgun Players

Through: January 15

Where: Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley

Operating time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, one intermission

Tickets: $7 to $75; www.shotgunplayers.org

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