You wouldn’t necessarily think that Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” would make a great subject for a musical — and you’d be at least partially right. Capital City Theatre’s “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812,” which debuts Friday, only focuses on a 70-page sliver of that weighty tome — the part that focuses on the scandalous affair between the engaged ingenue Natasha Rostova (played by Miyuki Miyagi) and the roguish Anatole (Charlie Tingen).
Meanwhile, Pierre (Travis Leland), the best pal of Natasha’s fiancée, who’s away at war, goes through an existential crisis over his disastrous marriage. Think of it as a song-laden soap opera set in Imperial Russia.
The show’s known for providing the platform for Josh Groban to debut on Broadway back in 2016, and for its unusually immersive elements. When Andrew Abrams, CCT’s artistic director, first saw “Comet” off-Broadway, he was blown away by the actors flying around the room, singing, dancing and more, right in the middle of the audience.
“When we got the rights to stage it, we thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be neat if we could do it in a room where we could do something like that?’” says Abrams.
Clearly, the Overture Center’s Capitol Theater, where CCT has staged most of its productions, wasn’t going to cut it. That’s what led Abrams to a truly unexpected location: The Four Winds Farm, a recently renovated agricultural community center in rural Fitchburg.
The farm’s main building is a long room that allows for 120 audience members to be seated at tables in a sort of giant figure-eight, with a large circular platform in the middle of the room. The arrangement allows for the actors to move around at will — and for some unexpected surprises. Audience members can choose to sit where they’re likely to have some up close and personal time with the actors, or, if they’re uncomfortable with that, on the sides of the space.
One of the things Abrams appreciates about the production’s unusual location is the surrounding countryside. Instead of audiences exiting the show into the urban environment of State Street, they’ll come out to cornfields.
“You look out a window, and you really could be in the middle of Russia,” says Abrams. “You’re very much transported by the nature of the surrounding environment.”
And, by the sounds and sights of the show, too. Abrams describes “Comet” as a “loud” show: In addition to the show’s orchestra, most of the cast members play instruments (some of them play several — Travis Leland’s Pierre plays piano, accordion and guitar at various points during the show), as well as a few unexpected props.
“It never stops moving,” says Abrams. “That’s what’s so cool about it — you couldn’t possibly see everything that’s happening. I would want to see it three to four times to catch it all.”
Unfortunately, even if you had the time and disposable income, that’s an impossible ask: CCT sold out the entire run of “Comet,” despite adding two additional shows.
Abrams calls “Comet” the most expensive show the company has ever staged, largely because producing it in a barn-like space in Fitchburg means that the company had to bring every piece of the show into the space on its own — the lighting, the sound systems, the set pieces. Even with all the work and expense, the company’s loving the experience.
“We’re so thrilled with how it’s looking,” he says.
“Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812” runs through June 12.
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