Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Great Comet Arrives

Review: Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812

Josh Groban (r) and the company of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812

After a sensational run Off-Broadway in 2013, Dave Malloy's wildly inventive, boundary pushing musical Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 arrives on Broadway with a production which does its best to recreate the magic of that original, supper club set run. Scenic designer Mimi Lien has gone all out in reconfiguring the spacious Imperial Theatre into something approximating the joy of her fully immersive original design, and director Rachel Chavkin uses every ounce of her seemingly boundless talent to create a fluid staging the utilizes every possible inch of the stage and the audience. And while much of the show is undeniably brilliant, there are moments where it appears Chavkin and company have become so concerned with amping the show up for Broadway they sometimes undercut the effectiveness of their storytelling.

The show adapts a mere sliver of Leo Tolstoy's epic novel War and Peace, focusing on the attempted seduction of the young, beautiful Natasha by the rakish Anatole. Natasha's betrothed is off fighting in the war, so she moves to Moscow with her godmother Marya and cousin Sonya. The gorgeous newcomer soon becomes the toast of Moscow society, eventually catching the eye of the womanizing (and married) Anatole. And what about Pierre? The nobleman, an old friend of Natasha's fiance and Anatole's brother-in-law, serves as the evening's narrator, watching his contemporaries' passions while wistfully longing to experience a similar sort of fervor.

As cheekily acknowledged in the show's "Prologue," the details of the plot can be a bit complicated to the uninitiated, but Malloy's excellent writing and Chavkin's direction do such a good job of focusing your attention that the synopsis in the program proves largely unnecessary. Through his eclectic, complex, and constantly surprising score, Malloy ensures that the mood and emotions of the story are always crystal clear even when the details of the narrative get convoluted. The score borrows from a host of influences, from traditional Russian folk songs to electronica to opera, all interwoven so seamlessly that none of them feel out of place. Malloy has made some additions to the score since the show's Off-Broadway premiere, which has pushed its runtime *just* past what it really wants to be. Calling the show bloated or self-indulgent would be too harsh, but a couple of sequences do overstay their welcome (especially the extended "Balaga" song and dance in the second act).

The cast remains largely the same as the Off-Broadway production, barring two notable exception. With original lead Phillipa Soo gone on to post-Hamilton fame, the role of Natasha is now played with winsome charm by Denee Benton. Benton expertly portrays Natasha' girlish enthusiasm and wonder as she becomes caught up in the excitement of the big city, and her handling of the character's big solo "No One Else" is exquisite. She navigates the deceptively difficult vocal demands of the role with aplomb, and despite a tendency to play the comedy a bit broad she grounds the show with her emotional honesty.

The other major new cast member, and arguably the reason this boundary pushing show was able to secure a Broadway berth at all, is multi-platinum recording star Josh Groban as Pierre. Gamely wearing a fat suit and sporting quite an impressive beard, Groban is admirably committed to telling the show's story without hijacking the narrative to make everything about him. He makes quite the accomplished Broadway debut, and if his Pierre could stand to be a tad more world-weary it is hardly detrimental to the show. Malloy has written a new song specifically tailored to show off Groban's instantly recognizable voice, which is thrillingly sung and definitely increases Pierre's presence in the show's first act.

The rest of the cast does fine work, although many of them have adopted the same tendency towards overplaying that Benton has. It's never enough to really hurt the show, and all of them are smart enough to trust in the power of stillness when it really matters, but there's a tad too much indicating as opposed to embodying emotion. The worst offender is Lucas Steele as Anatole, who becomes such a cartoonishly pompous preener it can be hard to understand why Natasha is so drawn to him. On the flip side, Brittain Ashford has only improved since originating the role of Sonya, with her quietly devastating "Sonya Alone" one of the emotional highlights of the evening. Amber Gray is a welcome fiery presence as Anatole's sister Helene, and Grace McLean's Marya is at turns both funny and frightening. McLean is particularly effective during the one-two punch of "In My House" and "A Call to Pierre," which also marks one of Malloy and Chavkin's most sustained sequences of brilliance.

Design-wise, the show is a sumptuous feast for the senses. In addition to Lien's set of gorgeous red velvet walls with gold accents, Bradley King's absolutely phenomenal lighting design is essential to the show's visual impact. King lights both the stage and the audience with laser-like precision, and all of the production's most striking images owe a huge debt to his work. Nicholas Pope's immersive sound design captures of the feeling of being in the middle of the action even for those not lucky/wealthy enough to be seated onstage, adding to the sonic landscape created by Malloy's music and orchestrations. Paloma Young's costumes for the leads are also gorgeous, although her ensemble outfits tend towards being overly busy.

Lest there be any confusion, Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 is an excellent work of theatre, and exactly the kind of challenging, boundary pushing production Broadway needs more of. The critiques above are nitpicks that only stand out because the rest of the show is so well done, and will likely go unnoticed by those experiencing the show for the first time. But those who saw and loved the Off-Broadway incarnation may be a tad disappointed that the Broadway mounting doesn't quite equal the previous production's artistic success, even though this richly detailed mounting still has plenty to offer.


  1. Based on overall current buzz, it seems this show and Dear Evan Hansen are the two likeliest contenders to win Best Musical at the Tonys next year. Do you agree? And which one do you think is more deserving?

    1. I definitely agree that this and "Dear Evan Hansen" are major contenders for Best Musical. Having not seen the Broadway staging of "Evan Hansen" yet I can't say for sure which is more deserving, although I'm inclined to give "Evan Hansen" the edge at the moment.

      That said, there are a TON of new musicals scheduled for the next 4 months so nothing is set in stone at this point.