Tuesday, April 16, 2024

‘War and Peace’ Musical at Cygnet Theatre Would Make Tolstoy Dance.

By Lonnie Burstein Hewitt
Photos by Maurice Hewitt


 A week before showtime, Costume Designer Shirley Pierson
posed with a handful of sketches outside the theater.

Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, which just opened at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town, is a far-out-of-the-ordinary event. It’s a pop-rock opera that is, as the detailed program informs us, “adapted from a scandalous 70-page slice of Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’.” It gives new meaning to the overused word “immersive” and is a thousand times more amusing than Tolstoy; Cygnet’s program includes a link to Tolstoy’s relevant chapters if you want to check.

Written by playwright/composer/lyricist/actor/musician Dave Malloy, who played Pierre in the first off-Broadway production, the show became a huge hit on Broadway, where it was nominated for 12 Tony awards and won for best scenic and lighting design in 2017.

The look of the show is a major attraction, and costumes are a big part of that look. Happily, I got to interview Cygnet’s award-winning costume designer Shirley Pierson before the show opened and not only saw the sketches she originally did for the costumes, some of which you’ll see here, but also heard about her unusual path to becoming a costume designer, which I’m sharing here too. 

The Designer’s Sketches


Natasha: A lovely young woman, she’s engaged to Andrey,
who has gone off to war, and makes the dreadful mistake of falling for Anatole.

Andrey: Natasha’s fiancé, an honorable man
away fighting Napoleon’s army.

Anatole: A handsome scoundrel
who goes after Natasha.

Hélène: Anatole’s sister, no better than her brother.

Pierre: A wealthy man, kind but socially awkward,
unhappily married to 

On opening night, the finished costumes really came to life on the super-active performers, and there were three amazing costumes in the show’s opera-within-the-opera that left us wide-eyed and open-mouthed. Shirley said there were some surprises, and she was right. I won’t reveal the surprises; you’ll have to go see for yourself.

Shirley Pierson: A Designer’s Life 

Shirley did not take a direct path to costume designing, though she’s been sewing and working with textiles since she was five years old.

“I grew up on a farm in Nebraska and learned on my grandmother’s treadle machine,” she said. “I went to a one-room parochial schoolhouse till 8th grade, then went on to high school in our small town. There were only 49 in our graduating class, and there were only two possibilities for women then: teaching and nursing. So I chose nursing, and became a travelling nurse.”

She wound up in Los Angeles, in psychiatric nursing—a background she says serves her well in a fitting room with actors.

From nursing, she segued into clothing, at Robinson’s Department Store’s buying offices for junior clothing, in the days of Guess Jeans and glam rock. Then she went into manufacturing, buying textiles from all over the world.

“I liked the story every textile told, but I didn’t want the almighty dollar to be driving what I did,” she said. “So I started designing textiles and prints, mainly for children, and then got into costume design, and got involved in theater.”

Along the way, she met and married Eric Pierson, who had been working in Script Development and wanted to get a PhD in Media Studies. One of the best places to do that was at the University of Illinois, so they went there, and she began taking courses in theater and puppetry.

Back in California, he started teaching New Media, Film and TV at U.S.D. and she got her MFA in Theatrical Arts and Technical Design at SDSU. While still a student, she won her first award for costume design and was soon gathering more awards for her work. I remember the brilliantly weird costumes she did for Shockheaded Peter at Cygnet, which won her a Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Costume Design in 2017.

On her website she says she believes in “strong, purposeful lines and textures” and the power of costume design. “Costume supports story and…sparks creative imagination for the actor wearing it, the company members performing around it, and the audience member viewing it.”

She’s also an Associate Professor of Clothing and Textile Arts at San Diego College of Continuing Education, where she opened a Fiber Tech Lab. “I love being in the classroom, and letting people know what digital arts can do,” she said. “This is definitely a Renaissance period we’re in, and we need not to be intimidated by the changes but ready to immerse ourselves in the possibilities.”

And what about the show? 

It was a delight, full of audience involvement, great music, great voices, and besides all the fun, some emotional moments too. At the end, we joined the entire audience’s standing ovation.

If you’re ready to immerse yourself in a great theater-going experience, don’t miss this one. Due to tremendous audience response, the show’s run has been extended through May 26!

 Here’s the “Family Tree” from the program, so you can meet the characters in advance.


Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812
Book, Lyrics and Music by Dave Malloy.
Adapted from War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Directed by Sean Murray
Music Direction by Patrick Marion
Choreography by Katie Banville
Costumes by Shirley Pierson

Cygnet Theater
Apr 10 - May 26, 2024

Lonnie Burstein Hewitt is an award-winning author/lyricist/playwright who has been writing about arts and lifestyles in San Diego County for over a dozen years. You can reach her at hew2@sbcglobal.net

No comments:

Post a Comment