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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
NATASHA, PIERRE & THE GREAT COMET OF 1812
at Imperial Theatre

TO RUSSIA, WITH LOVE
By DAVID COTE

  Josh Groban/ Ph: Chad Batka

Can we forget, at least for a minute, the Russia of email hacking, Crimea invading and shirt avoiding by President Vladimir Putin? Instead, let us visualize the old imperial Russia of vodka, troikas, lavish balls and doorstop 19th-century novels. Yes, Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 has made its triumphant journey from intimate Ars Nova to Broadway’s Imperial Theatre, and the result is pure theatrical magic. If you thought Hamilton was going to set a bar that few could reach in terms of creative iconoclasm on Broadway, think again. Both shows dramatize dense historical subjects with a contemporary sound, and both contain pivotal duels. Apart from that, they are very different beasts.
 
Book writer, composer-lyricist and (this is rare) orchestrator Dave Malloy’s eclectic and irreverent musical, first seen in 2012, was inspired by about 70 pages of Tolstoy’s epic novel War and Peace. The actual plotting is not dense, but the cast of characters is broad and complexly interwoven. We are in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars. Bloody battles at Russia’s border haven’t stopped rich and idle Muscovites from going about their affairs. Naïve young country aristocrat Natasha, played with sparkle and pluck by Denée Benton, is engaged to Prince Andrey Bolkonsky (Nicholas Belton), off fighting Napoleon. Overwhelmed by the glamour of Moscow, Natasha finds herself seduced by a handsome rake named Anatole (Lucas Steele, hair moussed and breeches very snug). Josh Groban makes a forceful and passionate Broadway debut as the depressive Pierre, a family friend of Natasha who is frittering his life away with booze and bookish pretensions. Although on CDs and in concert Groban tends to produce an over-processed, almost saccharine sound, here he’s a rich and nuanced actor, putting his beautiful instrument to keen dramatic effect. Other players in this pathos-rich story of dissolution and redemption are Hélène (Amber Gray), Pierre’s faithless wife; Sonya (Brittain Ashford), Natasha’s meek but loyal friend; Mary (Gelsey Bell), Prince Andrey’s mousy sister; and Marya D (Grace McLean), Natasha’s old-fashioned, busybody relative.
 
Like many a classic musical, The Great Comet is the story of a young, idealistic newcomer to a city burning to make something of herself. She experiences luxury, love and heartbreak, and comes out the other end wiser and stronger. That might make the piece sound conventional, but it is anything but. Surrounding the audience in a Russian supper-club vibe and sending actors spinning around us, this spectacular show tells a story of innocence and cynicism by inventing its own scenographic and musical vocabulary. Malloy’s vibrant score freely mashes up folk and rock, a mix of foot-stompers and heart-breaking indie-pop ballads. It’s as if Malloy, when it came time to find an idiom for each of the 27 numbers, simply set his iTunes playlist to Shuffle and transcribed the result. The score thus pivots from deeply emotional (the devastating ode to friendship, “Sonya Alone”) to cheekily expositional, like the second-act opener “Letters.” (Sample lyric: “In 19th-century Russia we write letters / We write letters / We put down in writing / What is happening in our minds.”) The lyrics are not your typical rhyming stanzas, and the song structures are not square ditties, but conversational arias or duets, closer to opera recitative or sung-through singspiel. Malloy’s gift for melody and finding the perfect phrasing turns this shaggy score into more than a postmodern exercise and into a remarkably satisfying musical event.
 
The pleasures are visual as much as sonic. Director Rachel Chavkin’s breathless, immersive staging on Mimi Lien’s 360-degree set is a constant source of wonder and kinaesthetic revelation. Draping huge swaths of red fabric all around the interior of the Imperial Theatre and hanging golden starburst chandeliers (reminiscent of Hans Harald Rath’s “sputniks” at the Metropolitan Opera), Lien makes a Broadway house feel both more grand and more cozy than you’d ever believe. Raised platforms have been threaded through the orchestra, allowing characters to hurtle past on their way to the stage. I saw The Great Comet at its claustrophobic (yet ecstatic) world premiere at Ars Nova and at the pop-up tent Kazino in 2013; this expanded staging breathes and lives, it serves the storytelling best.
 
So raise your shot of vodka to Broadway’s latest miracle. Easily one of the most original new musicals Broadway has seen this decade, The Great Comet is intimate yet epic, ironic yet deeply felt, cosmic yet down to earth. It lights up the sky and our hearts. Now, Dave, about the rest of that novel…

 


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