Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.

Josh Groban

Natasha, Pierre, & The Great Comet of 1812


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.


Josh Groban

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
Imperial Theatre
249 West 45tth Street

Lee Day on Life, Liver and the Hirsute of Happiness


On a lovely early autumn Saturday (9/17) The Metropolitan Room hosted its first Pet Cabaret.  It may now take a modest bowwow.   I have never had much patience for clubbing baby seals; indeed I saw none today at the Met Room.  But when it comes to shooting urban animals, photographs that is, I’m your man.

img_3019-i-gotta-crowLee Day, “I’ve Gotta Crow”

Lee Day, sporting Milk Bone earrings and a “Lady and the Tramp” shirt, sang a mixed bag of animal-related numbers and shared bits of her life.  She opened with a clean verse of “Let’s Talk Dirty to the Animals” (Michael O Donoghue) made famous, ahem . . . , by Gilda Radner.  She sang a bit from “Biscuits are a Dog’s Best Friend” – without apologies to Styne and Robin (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes).  Then “I’ve Gotta Crow” (Charlap, Leigh), “Talk to the Animals” (Darin), etc.; you get the idea.

Day’s love of animals has gained her entrée to numerous experiences and celebrities – both before and after achieving some renown.  Early in her career she discovered she was a kind of “cat whisperer” when rescuing the feline of an opera singer from a precarious perch.  The singer was so grateful that she “gave” Day access to an idol of hers, Doris Day (no relation).  Doris Day called Lee Day at an appointed hour and they immediately hit it off over their common cause – talking at length. Doris encouraged Lee to pursue her dream – and she did.  They have spoken often since that day.

img_3025-lee-and-some-patronsLee Day and Metropolitan Room Patrons

Lee grooms, and entertains, pets; indeed, she provides grooming house-calls.  She has serviced, so to speak, pets of Frank Sinatra, Lauren Bacall, Joan Rivers and Mary Tyler Moore.  She has appeared on television with Regis Philbin, Sally Jesse Raphael and, in England, with Terry Wogan.  She was seen on the Terry Wogan show by the Queen and Princess Di who then asked to meet her; Day sang for the princes when they were smaller than she. Day is a proponent of pound puppies and does not subscribe to remote animal care; all animal care should be transparent to owners.   All of her grooming comes with pet entertainment, but not all entertainment comes with grooming.  For example, Lee does entertain at pet weddings and bark-mitzvahsTM.

Day explained in the course of her show that she suffers from Noonan’s syndrome, a condition affecting her learning capacity as well as her physical state (including, particularly the heart).  Still, most of us could benefit from whatever has affected Day’s heart; she is guileless and effusive, and she clearly loves animals.  She has built for herself a unique career and a remarkable life and, in the process, gained apparent contentment.

img_3048img_3046-day-lively-singing-hes-a-trampLee Day and Anna Lively sing “He’s a Tramp”

Lee Day was the name on the show marquee, but she was nicely supported by friend Anna Lively, a regular cabaret performer, who joined Day on stage for a lovely and amusing rendition of “He’s a Tramp” (lyrics by Peggy Lee and Sonny Burke, music by Oliver Wallace with an assist from Peggy Lee, baying by Lee Day).  Both were loosely accompanied on the Piano by Jeff Franzel, an uber-able musician who has played with Frank Sinatra, Mel Torme and Les Brown, among others, and now writes songs for the likes of The Temptations, Placido Domingo and Josh Groban, as eclectic a group of performers as one can cram into three personnae.

Following the show, doggy treats were made available (by the Met Room) to all comers.  In New York (unless it’s Trump) you blink and you miss it.  It was sweet, if a tad sentimental, and it may not come again.

Photos by Fred Cohen Photography