By Karen Isaacs
The Imperial Theater (aptly named) has been transformed into a café/club of Imperial Russia in the 19th century for the magnificent production of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. This is a production I want desperately to see again.
First done off-Broadway in October 2012 the show ran in various locations from March 2013 to 2014, but has finally made it to Broadway.
Certainly, that Josh Groban was interested in playing Pierre made the Broadway production more financially feasible.
The Great Comet is based on Tolstoy’s epic novel, War and Peace, about the Napoleonic War against Russia. It focuses. though on just one small part of the novel that deals with the two title characters.
Let’s start with the setting. Off-Broadway this was an immersive production; at one point it was performed in a tent with all of the audience seated at tables. The Imperial Theater has undergone extensive reconstruction. There is NO stage, per se. The audience is all around the performing space – some seated at tables and others in more conventional seats. Expect that a cast member might sit down next to you. The decorations feature the plush reds and other colors associated with the period and the setting. They are lush.
Don’t be afraid of the Russian names and the multiple interconnections. Dave Malloy who wrote the book, lyrics, composed the music and orchestrated the show has helped you out. The opening number, “Prologue” – introduces us to each character with one or two easily remembered facts about the character in a “Twelve Days of Christmas” style. It is helpful as well as the synopsis and family tree in the program.
Natasha is a young girl engaged to Andrey, who is in the army. She comes to Moscow accompanied by her cousin, Sonya, to spend the winter with her godmother, Marya. She is soon drawn into a circle of people that include Pierre, an unhappily married man; his promiscuous wife, Hélène; and her equally promiscuous brother, Anatole. Anatole decides to seduce Natasha, bewitching the naïve girl and promising to marry her. Natasha breaks off her engagement and plans to elope with Anatole, which will ruin her. Marya asks Pierre for help and he manages to save the situation.
While this is not a totally sing-through musical, there are over 25 songs in the show with some being called “arias.” Some propel the story forward and others express the emotions of the characters.
Probably the best example of that is “Dust and Ashes” which is new to the show; it was written for Groban as Pierre and in fact, he has performed it in concerts for a number of months.
The big question in this production is Josh Groban as Pierre. Let’s say immediately that he
is terrific. It may have been his name that convinced producers to bring the show to Broadway, but he proves himself totally. It is clear from various interviews that he threw himself into preparation for the show including learning to play the accordion. He has hidden his good looks with a beard and padding to make Pierre somewhat overweight. While a title character, Pierre is not the romantic lead of the show, Pierre is more a character part. In fact, this man is unhappy, depressed and a cuckold.
Much of the cast has been with the show from early incarnations. But Denée Benton is a comparable newcomer as Natasha; she joined the show at the American Repertory Theater in December 2015. Her Natasha is charming, naïve and very young. She has a clear voice that fits the character.
Lucas Steele is excellent as the seducer, Anatole. He combines suave manners with an undercurrent of total amorality. Amber Gray plays his sister (and Pierre’s wife) Hélène with a delicious sense of depravity and voluptuousness.
As in any good musical, there should be one number that may not be strongly related to the plot but is still good fun. In this show it is “Balaga” led by a character of the same name, who is the troika driver that Anatole has engaged for the planned elopement.
The ensemble are asked to play a variety of roles, interact with the audience and even play musical instruments. (John Doyle who did that in successful revivals of Company and Sweeney Todd) can be blamed for this trend that keeps popping up. Isn’t it enough that they sing, dance and act? )
In addition to the accordion, Gorban occasional substitutes for the pianist/conductor Or Matias. He even does that well.
For this type of immersive show to work, the entire production team must be outstanding and overcome unusual challenges. Mimi Lien has created the opulence of the club as well as well the period. Yet the audience must always be able to see the action.
Bradley King’s lighting design must illuminate the multiple playing space yet not blind the audience and sound designer Nicolas Pope must allow us to hear everything no matter where we are seated or where the actors are. Each meets the challenges in a superb way.
Added to this are the lush costumes of Paloma Young.
Obviously this requires an experienced and creative director. Rachel Chavkin, has been with the project since it began, and has mastered how to tell the story with little scenery and an audience sitting in the middle of the playing space. Connecticut theatergoers saw her talent when she directed Fairy Tale Lives of Russian Girls at the Yale Rep. She is aided by Sam Pinkleton’s choreography that must recall Russian dances but operate in very limited spaces.
For me the star was the music of Dave Malloy. He has skillful combined many genres to create a show that is modern yet seems true to the period. He blends hints of Russian melodies and rhythms with rock, jazz and more modern genres. Yet they are never jarring.
The only thing that would improve this show is some vodka passed out to the audience.
Go see Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. If possible sit in the orchestra or the first rows of the mezzanine. It is worth it.
The show is at the Imperial Theater, 249 W. 45th Street, NYC. Tickets are available through Telecharge.