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.

Rachel Chavkin

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

The Royale – A Knockout!


Imagine a play centered on boxing in which not a single punch visibly connects to a body, yet we feel every blow, in which character drives narrative and racially based conflict is without cliché. Playwright Marco Ramirez’s tightly written, enthralling “six rounds” are insightfully penned and placed in historical context based on actual events. The beautifully acted piece is helmed by inspired Director Rachel Chavkin, resulting in one of the most original productions I’ve seen in some time. Don’t shy away because of subject matter.

“And now the fight you came for. The fight you paid your well earned green for…” barks promoter Max (John Lavelle). Circuit boxer Jay Johnson (Khris Davis) is taking on a newbie nicknamed “Fish” (McKinley Belcher III). As he taunts the amateur with oddly benevolent good humor, we hear interjections by Max and trainer, Wynton (Clarke Peters). These are punctuated by the men’s synchronized claps which come and go within narrative like a Greek chorus.

Khris Davis and Clarke Peters

Instead of contact sport, we see the men move around sharing internal dialogue. “…Focus!…He’s all talk, He ain’t nothing…Breathe, Don’t lock…What’s that taste? Spit. Blood…a lamb to slaughter…” When blows connect, the aggressor literally stomps. Fish’s knock-out is indicated by Max and Wynton lifting and dropping the two heavy posts with rope between (one side of the ring) BOOM! One reflexively recoils.

His camp, admiring Fish’s perseverance and recognizing his potential, hire the boy as a sparring partner.

Jay Johnson is determined to fight the current World Heavyweight Champion who has since retired. Max insists he should continue outside the system, where, by greasing palms, he’s managed to provide a decent life. His fighter threatens to find another promoter.

When the deal is negotiated, against advice, Johnson agrees to give up 90 percent of the take “win or lose” for a shot at the title. The fight will be unprecedented – a black man in the ring with a white champ. Both current prejudice and the protagonist’s character are skillfully illuminated at a press conference.

Khris Davis, McKinley Belcher III, Clarke Peters

Discovering that guns and knives have been confiscated at the entrance to his fights, Johnson realizes a level of personal danger that apparently never occurred to him. Still, there’s no question of aborting the match. On the night of the event, however, his sister Nina (Montego Glover) unexpectedly shows up with evidence of threats to the family. She insists they’re already proud and wants him to walk away. We learn what may fuel Johnson’s anger and tenacity.

A conversation with Wynton, wherein reference to the play’s title becomes clear, wisely does not resolve Johnson’s thinking. Once in the ring, he’s told, you’re alone.

The fight itself is brilliantly conceived. Johnson’s demons actively confront him in a way you won’t be able to imagine without the clumsy help of a reviewer (not me). What ensues is emotionally painful and utterly gripping. Consequences are also wonderfully manifest with a pithy but not heavy handed touch.

sisMontego Glover, Khris Davis

There isn’t a weak link in the company. Though Max could be successfully portrayed as more exaggerated a character, actor John Lavelle is believable both with florid announcing and concern about the business of the business. McKinley Belcher III (Fish) is fully dimensional and entirely sympathetic, especially when encountering his first taste of luxury. As Wynton, Clarke Peters contributes palpably sage gravitas which balances volatility around him.

Montego Glover’s Nina is proud, stubborn, and articulate. (Ramirez has chosen to make the fighter and his sibling appear rather educated, a state not shared by the people on whom they were based. Perhaps, in fact, they were well spoken.) In her final scene, she spits well-aimed fire, then remains a potent presence.

Khris Davis’s powerful personification of Jay Johnson will resonate after applause dies out. The extremely fit thespian moves like a boxer. Davis tempers Johnson’s ego, inhabits his determination, and shares his thinking process with nuanced timing. The fact of his strength feels as true as eventual wrenching doubts. It’s manifestation of a whole man, “clarity of self in a hostile world.”

Director Rachel Chavkin (whose quote is just above), has taken a fine play and made it more compelling. Not only are her actors explicitly persuasive, but Chavkin’s creative interpretation is theatrically remarkable. Choreography embodying both internal and external battle is unique and accomplished. When actual boxing is depicted, practice is obvious. Synchronized sounds are vividly expressive. Staging area is aesthetically utilized.

orig boxerJack Johnson, on whom Jay is based

Nick Vaughan’s excellent set is comprised entirely of light wood slatted walls, floor and barriers on several well employed levels. Period gym lights and a wall of what appear to be fluorescents are graphic. Beginning with only two posts and a single side of roped ring, we tellingly progress to an entirely enclosed area at the final arena.

Costumes by Dede M. Ayite are low key and meticulously realized. Lighting by Austin R. Smith greatly enhances mood. The fighter’s giant shadow during one scene is especially redolent.

pageThe ‘Real’ Big Fight

A terrific, part fictional biopic, The Royale was inspired by Jack Johnson, the first African American World Heavyweight boxing champion (1908-1915). ‘The Galveston Giant’ triumphed, against all odds, in the era of Jim Crow. Because of racial tension, both guns and alcohol were prohibited at his bouts. The win itself resulted in outbreaks of bigoted violence that resulted in the deaths of at least twenty people.

Johnson left school early, ricocheting between jobs. As apprentice to a carriage painter who loved boxing, he caught the bug and began to spar on the side. Along his journey, while otherwise employed, the young man roomed with several fighters. He entered the profession a defensive boxer at twenty and at thirty became champion.

By all reports an entertaining personality, Johnson also played the vaudeville circuit with stories and demonstrations and was one of the first celebrity sports figures garnering endorsement contacts.

Much of the population was uncomfortable with a black man in his position. Fixing on Johnson’s preference for white women as an excuse, local government saw to it that he was arrested on trumped up charges relating to The Mann Act “transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes.” He was convicted by an all white jury and fled the country for seven years only to be clapped in prison upon his return. Johnson nonetheless returned to boxing and was active until the age of sixty accruing 73 wins.

Performance Photos by T. Charles Erickson
Opening: McKinley Belcher III, John Lavelle, Clarke Peters, Khris Davis

 If interested, check out: Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, the 2004 Ken Burns documentary.

Lincoln Center Theater presents
The Royale by Marco Ramirez
Directed by Rachel Chavkin
Through May 1, 2016
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater