Capital City’s latest is a tightly packaged experience

You really have to admire the artistry Capital City Theater has used to fit “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” into the confines of a Fitchburg barn.
Pierre (Travis Leland) sings about existential angst in the middle of a barn
Courtesy of Capital City Theatre
Pierre (Travis Leland) sings about existential angst in the middle of a barn in Capital City's production of "Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812."

You really have to admire the artistry Capital City Theater has used to fit “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” into the confines of a Fitchburg barn. It’s like a puzzle of disparate pieces that magically clicks together: Audience members clustered scant feet away from a raised circular platform, with raised platforms at either end. As the actors rush around and fly past, leaping and playing an orchestra’s worth of instruments, it feels like being in the middle of a rollicking tavern on a drunken Saturday night, and the way it all flows and fits together is awe-inspiring.

Dave Malloy’s musical, based on a 70-page section of Leo Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace,” launches with a rollicking and reductive prologue that ensures nobody in the audience is going to be confused about who’s who in the sprawling cast — it’s the kind of thing that some of William Shakespeare’s history plays could have used, if they were modern musicals, that is.

The plot’s actually pretty straightforward: Natasha (Miyuki Miyagi) arrives in Moscow as her fiancée Andrey (Cody Gerszewski) heads off to the war against Napoleon. At a ball, she sees and falls for the rake Anatole (a delightfully melodramatic Charlie Tingen), much to the chagrin of the other characters. Meanwhile, Pierre, a mopey old-school Russian (Travis Leland) bemoans his existence, and, more specifically, his marriage to Helene (Stella Kim), Anatole’s wild and wanton sister.

The show’s dialogue is sung, resulting in an interesting approach that generates plenty of deliberate comedic moments, as the characters often sing in third person about their facial expressions and the things they’re thinking and doing. It’s like being your very own narrator, and if it sometimes seems and sounds ridiculous, well, that’s part of the fun.

Those seated at tables at the edge of the performance space are completely swept up in the action, with actors running, whirling, dancing and playing instruments practically in your lap. The tight constriction of the set requires a significant amount of head-swiveling from the audience, sometimes just to try to catch everything that’s gong on, and sometimes because the action’s taking place on the platform located behind you. The acoustics of the barn space aren’t the best for opera, and there are points where the words are lost amidst the action — but luckily, not many.

The actors do all they can to make the audience feel like it’s part of the action. Balaga (Josh Hayes), who’s the centerpiece of a high-energy dance number in the show’s second act, spends the leadup to the show serving shots of vodka to the crowd. An audience member is briefly recruited as a stand-in suitor, and cast members are constantly camping in open chairs next to audience members, making eye contact with the audience at every opportunity.

The cast is uniformly excellent, many of them showing off their skills with instruments as well as their powerful pipes. Gail Becker is perfectly imperious as Marya, the matron who hosts Natasha. As Sonya, Natasha’s good-hearted and more sensible pal, Madelaine Vandenburg knocks her second-act solo number out of the silo. For big parts of the show, Leland’s sad-sack Pierre is little more than undercard, reading, moping and musing — until he gets a chance to stand in the central platform, bringing the house down by belting out “Dust and Ashes” at the end of the first act.

The show’s technical aspects are impressive as well. When Nastasha and Anatole finally give into temptation, lighting designer Aimee Hanzyewski projects flickering lights onto Nastasha’s snow-white dress, making it appear as if the two of them are being consumed by otherworldly flame. It’s one of several instances where light transforms the space in fantastical ways.

“Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” is an absolute blast to experience. The only real shame here is that, because of the space’s limitations, more people won’t get the chance to see the spectacle of this show — the space only seats around 120 people, and the entire run’s been sold out for weeks. That said, Capital City has delivered a beautiful blueprint of how to turn Four Winds Farm into a vibrant theater space. Here’s hoping they’ll find a way to use it again in the coming years.

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