Riverside Theatre to present first musical in over 12 years with ‘Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812’

Based on a portion of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Riverside Theatre’s latest production ‘Natasha Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812’ tells a story of love, drama, and history. Written by Dave Malloy, the musical brings out intense and human emotion through song.


Gabby Drees

Actors belt a song in the musical “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1912” at Riverside Theatre in Iowa City on Thursday, April 21, 2022. “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1912” will premiere Friday, April 22, and end Sunday, May 8.

Jami Martin-Trainor, Arts Reporter

In an immersive theater experience, Riverside Theatre will bind together love, drama, and history with its first musical production in over 12 years.

Based on part of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the musical Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 will premiere at the theater company’s new location on April 22, running every weekend until May 8.

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The entirely sung-through show, which features a whopping 27 songs, focuses on young Natasha’s love conflict and Pierre’s search for meaning, all set against the background of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.

Patrick Du Laney, the actor playing one of the show’s protagonists, Pierre Bezukhov, said that the Great Comet of 1812 is ideal for a musical production. With intense dramatics and emotions expressed during the show, Du Laney said those elements are heightened with song.

“There’s so much interest and decadence and art, and the turbulence going on at this time that I think it just naturally lends itself — it wants to be musicalized,” Du Laney said.

In terms of connecting with his character, Du Laney said that he starts by looking internally and finding the parts of his own personality that he can intersect with Pierre’s story.

Described by Du Laney as a well-meaning but perpetually lost person, a large part of Pierre’s character is centered around finding his identity and place in the world. Du Laney said he can relate to that struggle and started there to connect to the character.

“I don’t live in Russia in 1812, but I do think about how I have felt lost in my life. I have felt like desperately looking for something or struggling to kind of find my identity in the eyes of other people,” he said.

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Mia Gimenez, the actress playing Pierre’s seductive wife, Hélène Bezukhova, said that she enjoys the musical elements of the show, much like Du Laney. Gimenez attested to playwright Dave Malloy’s skill in combining the musical and storytelling elements.

Playing a character who is cunning and constantly preying on the weaknesses of others, Gimenez described her role as someone who is always one step ahead of her castmates. To reflect that in the music, one of her character’s main songs is entirely syncopated, illustrating those personality traits through song.

“One thing that I love about Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 is how well it is written,” Gimenez said. “The lyric is written to match that music, but also to tell the story. I mean, it’s billed as an electro-pop opera, but it has elements of jazz and folk and pop and Broadway and rock.”

Gimenez has done theater in Iowa City for years. As a graduate of the University of Iowa who studied opera, Gimenez returned to Iowa City in 2015 and has been involved in professional theater in the area ever since.

“I would be remiss if I didn’t say a huge thank you to Adam Knight for taking a chance and allowing me to be a part of this amazing cast, this dream team working with Chris Okiishi,” Gimenez said. “It’s been such a gift, and I needed it.”

Gimenez is also a teacher who operates a voice studio in North Liberty. One of her students, Niyati Deshpande, is also starring in the Great Comet of 1812.

Deshpande will take on the role of Natasha Rostova, one of the main characters who finds herself caught in a love triangle. The Great Comet of 1812 will be her first professional show.

“I’m not a seasoned actor, as a lot of my castmates are,” Deshpande said. “We’ve had six weeks of rehearsals and we’re putting the show up, when I’m used to three months.”

While the turnaround was brief, Okiishi, the production’s director, attested to the immense talent of the crew. With a large cast and orchestra involved in the production, Okiishi said that he looks forward to seeing the piece open for a live audience.

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