Originating at innovative Ars Nova, Natasha, Pierre, & The Great Comet of 1812 was subsequently produced again Off Broadway. I saw neither iteration, but assume that production values could not possibly have been as grand. The musical is among a current crop of those whose fourth walls have been demolished by lively, raucous casts who often sit on laps.
This version has several things to recommend it, none of which has anything to do with content. The first is its production – see below, the second a few principals, the third, a company of musicians and dancers who work together like a Rube Goldberg contraption on steroids.
Lucas Steele and Denee Benton
The iconic Tolstoy story might be condensed thus: Innocent Natasha, engaged to noble young Andrey who’s away at war, visits godmother Marya D. in Moscow, cousin Sonya in tow. At an extravagant party, she’s swept off her feet by handsome bounder Anatole. Warned by both godmother and cousin, she nonetheless falls in love, disgracing herself and her family. Consequences are messy, but not fatal. Pierre is a drunken friend, first to Anatole, then Natasha. His represents the existential Russian character.
Making her Broadway debut, the young Denee Benton (Natasha) is attractive, charming, palpably innocent, and a fine vocalist. Someone to watch. Making his much touted first appearance on the boards, Josh Groban (Pierre) goes down an octave or two, adds gruffness to his voice and, yes, acts the part with admirable credibility – excepting a lack of apparent inebriation. These two performers actually engender a bit of sympathy.
As handsome womanizer Anatole, Lucas Steele is a palpably self-satisfied peacock. His extraordinary vocal range and control is matched only by the florid persona of a swashbuckler.
Amber Gray’s Helene (Anatole’s sister, Pierre’s materialistic, society conscious, estranged wife) makes me think, not inappropriately, of a witch from Macbeth.
Amber Gray and Denee Benton
On the other hand, Brittain Ashford’s Sonya (Natasha’s cousin and friend), with her distinctly pop inflection and southern accent, could swing for Jesse Mueller in Waitress (not that her voice isn’t good) and Grace McClean’s Marya D. screams and screeches her way through the role as if she had a different director than the others.
Rachel Chavkin’s Direction is visually outstanding. She unflaggingly manages a huge cast on the complicated Set (and off) with vitality, specificity and a terrific sense of fun.
Well integrated Choreography by Sam Pinkleton ranges from ballroom to drugged out disco including varied expressions of high spirits between.
Denee Benton and Brittain Ashford
Music, Lyrics, Book and Orchestrations are by Dave Malloy who clearly had available neither an objective eye nor ear. Perhaps everyone was dazzled by great ambitions. Interpretation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace is wordy to the point of turgid. (One goodbye scene makes us want to shoo the young man out any available door.) The entirely sung operetta has no book, in this case choosing to let characters describe what they think, feel, or have done in third person narrative. Thus, empathy is thwarted and characterization all but quashed. Lyrics have no relationship to music which is mostly tuneless. I’d be hard pressed to find very much one could call a song. The best melodies have no lyrics.
Ah, but the PRODUCTION: Only a theater designer with architectural training could have transformed The Imperial Theatre with the kind of imaginative opulence that offers endless in-your-face staging opportunities. Mimi Lien’s fantastic restructuring and decoration has transformed the 1923 Imperial with a series of tiers on which a portion of the audience sits among the performers. Many are beside café tables and bars. (There are several areas where one can buy spirits.) Levels culminate in a top balcony with grand entrance. Gold railings define areas behind which blood red curtains are hung with period artwork and elaborate mirrors. Star-spiked chandeliers create interior and exterior firmament. Stairways on either side and a runway up the aisle provide full synthesis.
Costumes by designer Paloma Young, who dressed the show Off Broadway, feature endless layers and textures combining contemporary street wear and classic Russian. We see fur lined coats and capes, empire dresses, embroidery, vests, and period military uniforms, but also disco leather, spikes and chains, midriffs, spandex, and ripped jeans. What can I say? It really works. Leah J. Loukas’s Hair and Wig Design is top notch.
Lighting Designer Bradley King offers a panoply of well employed possibilities utilizing raised and lowered points of light, bright sabers that create harsh or shimmering paths, focus spots that come out of nowhere, kliegs and strobes to unsettle.
The challenge of Sound Design in a musical that sends its players all over the theater while performing, is daunting. (A small orchestra is onstage.) Nicholas Pope has done a fine job with both balance and clarity.
For Technicians, Designers, and Musical Theater/Opera Directors, Natasha, Pierre, & The Great Comet of 1812 is a Master Class. It’s also the inverse of Aristotle’s famous comment: Here, The whole is less than the sum of its parts.
Photography by Chad Batka
Opening: Josh Groban and The Company
Natasha, Pierre, & The Great Comet of 1812
Music, Lyrics, Book and Orchestrations by Dave Malloy
Adapted from War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Directed by Rachel Chavkin
Choreographed by Sam Pinkleton
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