UMD's “Natasha, Pierre and the Comet of 2012” Blazes with Energy and Joy

UMD Marshall Performing Arts Center (MPAC) celebrates its 50th anniversary with the production of “Natasha, Pierre and the Comet of 2012”

“Gonna have to study up a little bit
If you wanna keep with the plot
'Cause it's a complicated Russian novel
Everyone's got nine different names
So look it up in your program
We'd appreciate it, thanks a lot”
“Prologue,” “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812”

The musical “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” is based on a little seventy page “sliver” of Leo Tolstoy’s epic over 1,500 page Russian novel War and Peace. UMD ’s Theatre department is performing “Comet” for its spring production, opening on the weekend of the 50th anniversary of the Marshall Performing Arts Center and a reunion of past students, faculty, and administrators.

One of the most energetic casts in a UMD show since Covid, the 25-member cast lit up the stage with their unabashed joy, performing this distinctly atypical  Broadway musical. Many of them also played musical instruments throughout the show, adding to the full sound of the terrific 9-piece onstage “Comet” band.

An eclectic, sometimes dissonant, sometime lush, and always unique score was undoubtedly a challenge for the musicians and the singers. Music Director Patrick Russell did a masterful job keeping all the styles cohesive in this beast of a score, with everything from ballads to a mockery of opera, all the while conducting a company that was literally all over the house.

Throughout the evening, the cast had great fun interacting with the audience, flirting, giving high fives, and dancing in the aisles. Their full company vocals were another highpoint of the evening with both lush harmonies and fun variations of folk, rock, electro-pop, and even highly discordant “opera.”

Ryan Armstrong stood out from his first moment onstage as the ringleader and “master of shenanigans” of the company, as the audacious Balaga. Armstrong was always great fun to watch, playing his accordion, dancing, leaping, and helping to establish the Russian folk style of some of the music.

At the story’s center is the young and virtuous Natasha (Mackenzie Ammon) who has been left behind as her fiancé  Andrey (Erik Rasmussen) has gone off to war. It doesn’t take long before she falls prey to the lascivious Anatole (Tanner Longshore) who sees her as nothing more than his next conquest.

Tanner Longshore and Mackenzie Ammon are the ill-fated lovers in UMD”s spring musical. Photo by Hunter Riley, UMD

Ammon brings a youthful naïveté and a sweet soprano voice to the role, and she made her arc, from a wide-eyed child to a broken and disgraced fallen heroine believable. Her “No One Else” solo was her standout moment as she proclaimed her love for her young soldier at war.

Longshore and John Toven, playing Anatole’s partner in crime, are dashing figures in their bright red and gold-trimmed military costumes. Longshore’s movie star good lucks worked to establish him as the stereotypical wolf in sheep’s clothing. Toven was always convincing as Anatole’s smarmy sidekick, also showing his talents as a musician (guitar and viola), and with some incredible dance moves.

Aaron Dumalag and Mackenzie Ammon (as Pierre and Natasha) find that their characters’ lives take an unexpected turn by the show’s end. Photo by Hunter Riley, UMD.

In the role of Marya, the kind but firm godmother to Natasha, Olivia Nelson is eminently watchable, both in her humorous moments and in her tirades. An audience favorite from her first moment onstage, her hilarious facial expressions and body language, and later her Act II enraged showstopper “In My House,” showed her range.

As Pierre, the alcoholic, unhappy scholar, and lonely outcast who hides from the world, Aaron Dumalag portrayed the depths of despair of this miserable man, who seeks redemption for his wasted life. Dumalag has one of the strongest voices in the company, particularly in his tragic lament, the heart-rending “Dust and Ashes.”

Anatole ( Longshore) pursues Natasha,(Ammon) much to the dismay of Pierre  (Dumalag). Photo by Hunter Riley, UMD.

The show is at its best in the full company production numbers, with choreography from Lila Ann White, notable in the song “ Balaga,” an over 10-minute all-out music and dance explosion. The cast was literally “passed out” on the floor at the end, with a few of them humorously begging audience members for water. White obviously had great fun mixing up her dance style choices to go with the ever-changing score.

Three of the major technical positions were UMD seniors: Lisa Scott, Samantha Brown, and Moriah Babinski. 

Impressive work from Scenic Designer Lisa Scott, creating the spectacle of the show from the commanding chandelier/comet overhead to the red star symbol on the stage floor, and the stunning upstage “wall” of color and bold graphic design, all evoking the majesty of Russia iconography.

Samantha Brown’s lighting design even became another character in the show with some eye-popping effects, particularly with the lighting of the chandalier/comet piece. The intricate and complex lighting plot was impressive and helped to set the mood and tone throughout.

Costume Designer Moriah Babinski clad the chorus in some Russian peasant looks, mixed in with anachronistic leathers, plaid punk gear, and studded denim to contrast with the traditional early 19th-century silhouettes for the principal men and women.

Bravo to Director Thomas Jacobsen for his creative vision for this show and for tackling “Comet,” which many professional companies won’t touch because of its many staging, musical, and casting complexities. The opening night audience stuck with the intricacies of the Russian Matryoshka stacking dolls’ characters and plot to let the evening of music, dance, and most of all the love of performing from this cast, to wash over them.

“Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812”
Book, Music, and Lyrics by Dave Malloy
adapted from the novel War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Apr 12th, 13th | 7:30 PM
Apr 14th | 2:00 PM (ASL Performance)
Apr 17th, 18th, 19th | 7:30 PM
Apr 20th | 2:00 PM & 7:30 PM

Marshall Performing Arts Center - Mainstage Theatre
Reserved seating Call 218-726-8561 for tickets and information.
Learn more about MPAC and its 50th Anniversary Celebration

About DD Arts & Entertainment Editor

A retired educator with the Duluth Public Schools, Sheryl Jensen has been a theater director of over 60 school and community productions. Her production of William Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew at East High School won the National High School Theater award from the BRAVO television network.

Having written theater, music, dance, and opera reviews for the Duluth News Tribune for many years, she now is the Arts & Entertainment Editor for Destination Duluth.

















Back to Top
Next Post:

“Constellations” Offers a Universe of Ever-Changing Possibilities

Previous Post:

Duluth Firefighter Caleb Kittleson is Ready for Anything, 24/7/365

Website Brought To You By:

  • Essentia Health
  • City of Duluth Minnesota
Other Supporting Partners
© 2024 Destination Duluth