After a very long wait, Tantrum Theater is gearing up to produce a Broadway hit penned by an Ohio University alum< < Back to
ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — 19th century British poet and critic Matthew Arnold once wrote that “a work of (Leo) Tolstoy is not a piece of art but a piece of life.” This gives us a bit of insight into the feat accomplished by the upcoming Athens production of “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812,” a Tony Award-winning electropop opera written by Ohio University alumnus Dave Malloy, based on a 70-page chunk of Tolstoy’s novel “War and Peace.”
The long-awaited production will be presented by Tantrum Theater, Ohio University’s professional theater in the College of Fine Arts. Performances will take place in Ohio University’s Forum Theater (35 South College Street) March 24-26 and March 30-April 2.
“Great Comet” takes place in 1812, amidst the French Invasion of Russia. Natasha is the young daughter of a nobleman, and she finds herself in Moscow waiting for her fiancé, who is a part of the Russian military effort to fend off the invasion. While there, Natasha becomes entangled with the wild-living Anatole, and Pierre, a socially awkward friend of Natasha’s family, is entrusted with triangulating what becomes an increasingly volatile situation.
“Great Comet” is being directed by Alan Patrick Kenny, assistant professor and head of Ohio University’s musical theater program. The production’s music director is Brent Frederick, assistant professor of instruction in musical theater and music director for the musical theater program.
Articulating a work of Tolstoy in the medium of musical theater may seem a bit unconventional. Be that as it may, “Great Comet” Kenny said it’s been a joyful endeavor to rise to the challenge of staging the production.
“We want to be able to tell this story and really serve Tolstoy’s vision filtered through Dave’s unique, modern, contemporary, and often very funn, sensibility,” said Kenny.
Initially “Great Comet” was scheduled to be produced during the spring of 2021.
COVID-19 disrupted this plan, but Kenny said that even with the many unanticipated changes everyone has faced over the course of the past two years, the aura around the upcoming productions of “Great Comet” feels both encouraging and even thematically appropriate.
“Something that happens in the book right before we begin in is a bunch of characters return from their country estates to Moscow. And if you are familiar with Chekov plays or you’re familiar with 19th century literature — often there has to be an airing out of a house, bringing it back to life. I feel like we’re doing that coming back from COVID and producing our first musical here. It sort of feels like a tentative and long awaited coming home.”
“Great Comet” was nominated for a whopping 12 Tonys at the 2017 Tony Awards. One of the Tonys the production took home was for “Best Scenic Design” thanks to an immersive design inspired by an experience Malloy had in Europe while conducting research for the writing of the musical.
“(Malloy) went into a club and they were serving pierogi and it was sort of like this weird back entrance and the instruments were all around you. So he sat right next to the viola player and had a very intimate experience,” said Kenny. “So basically what they did when “Comet” was first being produced was they converted the spaces they were in into a supper club and there were walkways for the actors so that they could literally walk amongst the musicians.”
Crafting a set for the show was always going to be one of the most demanding parts of the production. Michael Lincoln, Artistic Director of Tantrum Theater, said the process of creating the set has been especially complex thanks to complications brought on by COVID-19.
“We’re now on our third version of the set, and we’ve had a wonderful graduate student set designer who’s just rolled with the punches and redesigned it beautifully each time we have had to and never complained — thank God!”
Lincoln said the upcoming production will allow the opportunity to test the theater’s new sound system, which brings us back to the eclectic musical stylings of “Great Comet.” It also brings us back to a question those unfamiliar with “Great Comet” likely asked themselves way back at the beginning of this story: “what precisely is an electropop opera?”
Lucky for us, an “electropop opera” is precisely as fun as it sounds.
“Malloy calls it an electropop opera, which is a very strange term, but it encapsulates all of the different elements in the score. So there’s electronica in the show and there’s also traditional Russian music filtered through his very accessible sensibilities,” said Kenny.
This facet of the show also showcases Ohio University’s Actor-Musicianship Undergraduate Certificate, which is open to all Ohio University students, not just those in the musical theater program. Kenny said there are a number of actor-musicians taking part in the production of “Great Comet.”
Kenny said he feels “Great Comet” is exactly the sort of production he wants to be able to offer the experience of to Ohio University’s theater students.
“One of the things that’s really important to us (in the School of Theatre) is that we are really looking to what the art form and the industry are becoming — as opposed to what they’ve been in the past. And there’s no show out there that says, ‘this is where musical theater is going’ more than “Great Comet.”
There will be a preview performance of Tantrum Theater’s production of “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812” on Thursday, March 24 at 8 p.m. Opening night for the production is slated for Friday, March 25 at 8 p.m. The show will be produced Saturday, March 26 at 8 p.m. and then again once a night every night starting at 8 p.m. Tuesday, March 29 through Saturday, April 2.
There will be talkbacks immediately following the performances scheduled for Saturday, March 26 and Thursday, March 31. Dave Malloy will give a free artist’s talk on Sunday April 3 at 4 p.m. in Siegfred Hall (20 Church Street) in room 519.
All performances are in the Forum Theater in the Radio and Television Building, 35 South College Street, Athens OH 45701. Mask and proof of vaccination OR negative test within 72 hours required for entry.