Arvada Center theatre transforms into a Russian cabaret for new musical based on ‘War and Peace’

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Courtesy of Leslie Simon at the Arvada Center
Rehearsal for “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” at the Arvada Center.

Whether you read Tolstoy's novel “War and Peace” in school, abandoned the dense story, or binged it like a salacious mini-series, it might be hard to imagine that the sprawling 1869 work could inspire a contemporary musical theater piece.

But that’s exactly what the Arvada Center’s latest show, "Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812" is. 

Arvada Center artistic director Lynne Collins says she was struck by the ‘newness’ and originality of composer Dave Malloy’s work when she saw it on Broadway.  

“I'm always excited by any theater artist that is doing something I haven't seen before and telling a story in a way that surprises me. So that sort of started my thinking about it,” Collins said. “I really spent some time thinking about, could we do it? Could we do it justice but do our own version of it, in ways that we can really shine in this?”

The story — set in 19th-century Russia, and based on a 70-page passage of “War and Peace” — follows the lives of Natasha, a lovely ingénue in Moscow waiting for her beloved fiancé to return from the war, and Pierre, a lonely outsider searching for direction in his meaningless life.

The Arvada Center production has an all-local cast, and it asks a lot of them; most of the performers have to play an instrument and sing, and do it all in a variety of musical styles, including electric pop, traditional Russian music, opera, and more.

“I think everything about the way the music fits into the story is, here's a thing that feels old. It's also new. Here's a thing that's timeless,” said Collins.

For the production, Collins and her team decided to follow the immersive concept used on Broadway, but with a distinctly Arvada Center stamp. Production manager Elizabeth Jamison and her team of 50 to 70 people put in a whole year of pre-planning to figure out who to convert the Center’s black box space for an immersive musical.

Eden Lane/CPR News
Costume designs for the Arvada Center's production of "Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812," Jan. 19, 2023.

“I would say the biggest surprise is making the space fit for a musical because, in the sound world, that's just going to be different from doing a play. It requires a whole lot more — a lot more speakers, a lot more microphones, all of that kind of stuff,” Jamison said. “We've been set up for so long to do straight plays in there that we have to completely change our way of thinking. We have to break the mold of what we've always been doing and just make it beautiful.”

In the past, the Arvada Center has siloed musicals to its Main Stage theater and restricted Black Box to just straight plays. But Collins, who’s in her first full season programming both spaces, wanted to try a shakeup; “I thought I'll bust that out and see,” she said.

The story-telling experience begins in the lobby, which has been made over to resemble a vintage bar, giving a glimpse of the transformation that waits in the theatre, where the spectators are an active part of the play. For the show, the Black Box was redesigned with seating tiers that determine the levels of audience involvement, from cabaret tables on the floor to more traditional seats behind.

Courtesy of Leslie Simon at the Arvada Center
For "Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812," the Arvada Center's production team transformed its black box theater into a 19th-century Russian cabaret.

Scenic designer Brian Mallgrave relished the challenge of taking his skills beyond the stage. 

“We open things up for more opportunity and more ways to, I guess, be immersive, or more ways to produce theater in a different way, which is super exciting,” said Mallgrave. “So in all different ways, we've got some interesting different kinds of immersive experiences.”

Producing this show is more than a fun experiment for Collins; it’s the latest entry in an entire season that is pushing boundaries and taking risks. Going in new directions, she believes, will help the company survive, and thrive. 

“I think the only survival of American theater, period, is to find the path forward that doesn't alienate our traditional audiences but that asks them to move into some different ways of thinking about what theater is,” said Collins. "Hopefully, with something like ‘Natasha Pierre,’ (it) brings in a younger audience who wants an event that isn't, ‘Sit politely in your chair and watch play.’ This is more than just an audience-actor relationship.” 

“The goal always is to convince our existing audiences that this will be a fun adventure, while also telling new audiences the Arvada Center has more up their sleeve than doing only what we are sort of known to do, that we will keep sort of pushing that boat out,” said Collins.

“Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812” at the Arvada Center runs through March 31, 2024. 

Editor's Note: The Arvada Center is a financial supporter of CPR, but has no editorial influence.