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Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812
NEW YORK CITY
Broadway’s Imperial Theatre
Josh Groban and Denée Benton in Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812
Photo by Chad-Batka
DAVE MALLOY'S NATASHA, PIERRE AND THE GREAT COMET OF 1812 (seen Nov. 18 and Jan. 11) is the most immersive piece of theater to grace Broadway in a very long time. Before the evening’s music began, the company ran through the audience, tossed pierogies (very tasty) and explained that all should study the family tree printed in the program. There is no “stage,” per se; the stage area is evenly sectioned into places where the company performs, some instrumentalists play, and ticket buyers can sit on chairs, barstools or benches. There are also major dance numbers through the aisles and in the balcony. Characters, most of whom also play instruments, are costumed, by Paloma Young, in a mix of appropriate period clothing, nineteenth-century harlot garb, and 1990s steampunk miniskirts. It’s set in Russia, so fur is everywhere. If it sounds like a quirky hodgepodge, it is; it also works brilliantly, thanks to the sum of its parts.
Presented in its Broadway premiere, Great Comet premiered in 2012 and transferred to dinner-theater pop-up venues in 2013, directed by Rachel Chavkin, also the director of the Broadway production. The story itself is adapted from only seventy pages of Volume Two of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, an excerpt dealing with Natasha’s seduction by the ne’er-do-well Anatole and the drama that ensues. Art has long had a love affair with the suffering-artist character: enter Pierre, who, at the story’s onset, is suffering from an existential crisis. “Dear, bewildered, awkward Pierre” drinks too much, reads too much philosophy, loans too much money, and is trapped in an unhappy marriage to Hélène, a slut (says the “Prologue”). Hélène is the sister of Anatole, who, although he is married, is determined to seduce Natasha, young, naïve, and engaged to Andrey, who is away at war. Other characters include Natasha’s cousin, Sonya, and godmother, Marya D.; Andrey’s sister, Mary, and his father, Bolkonsky; Anatole’s friend Dolokhov; and Balaga, who is, basically, just for fun. All have a song or two, and the “Prologue” introduced them all and provides a flavor of what’s to come—wit, eccentricity, emotion and delight. The number is also a testament to the top-notch directing by Chavkin; the singers move around, always hit their spotlights and consistently play to all areas of spectators.
Malloy contributed music, lyrics, book and orchestration. (On the original cast recording, released in 2013, he sings Pierre.) The musical is almost completely sung through, with the characters frequently narrating their feelings and actions. (“I blush, happily,” sings Natasha.) Malloy has expert command of a number of different musical genres; Great Comet, originally labeled an “electropop opera,” has moments of musical-theater ballads, pop, modern opera, soul, and techno that could be out of a Calvin Harris album. Elaborate accompaniments add to the musical effect rather than support solo singers, with dissonance when the lyrics call for it. Group numbers, like the a cappella section of “The Great Comet of 1812,” have tight, gorgeous harmonies.
A number of the performers appeared in their Broadway debuts, most notably Denée Benton, as Natasha, and Josh Groban, as Pierre. Groban is known for his smooth, vibrato-heavy, luxurious baritenor in his multi-platinum albums. On January 11, as Pierre, he released a whole new arsenal of vocal colors; he also played accordion and piano and, at times, conducted. In his disgruntled opening, he growled; in “Pierre,” he belted; in lyrics like “I pity you,” he spat. And in the show-stopping number “Dust and Ashes” (added for the Broadway production), he implored fantastic control of dynamics and a deeply moving connection to each of his words, plus the characteristic creaminess of his voice that radio listeners know well. (On Nov. 18, Groban was ill, and his standby, Scott Stangland, sang Pierre, the role he sang at American Repertory Theater in 2015; his voice was much more gruff than Groban’s, but he did justice to Pierre through his acting and proved a strong presence.)
Benton scored a hit singing the challenging role of Natasha, which ranges from low chest tones to an F on the staff (which she belted) and deals with difficult passages of dissonant and unsupported singing. She looks and sounds very young, and her “No One Else” aptly captured the ignorant bliss of Natasha. Benton easily has the most singing in the entire show, and she paced herself carefully.
Lucas Steele had the ideal blend of modern musical theater and falsetto tones for Anatole. A strong stage presence, wherever he moved was center-stage. As Sonya, Brittain Ashford made lovely sounds, but was doing something stylistically that made her words practically indecipherable. Amber Gray had the ideal sexiness for Hélène and her alluring number “Charming.” Grace McLean, as Marya D., deployed a wonderful richness of chest tones and shouted frequently, as the role called for. Gelsey Bell, as Mary—and the Opera Singer in “The Opera” parody—made the right moves in chest and head voice, yet couldn’t blend the two when the music called for it.
The choreography, by Sam Pinkleton, did a superb job of looking spontaneous. Music director Or Matias, dressed in costume, did a fine job in leading the company. It was especially enjoyable to watch him and Groban trade off who would play piano and who would conduct. —Maria Mazzaro