Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812
By Nancy Salz, November 2016
Music, lyrics, book and orchestrations by Dave Malloy
Directed by Rachel Chavkin
Choreography by Sam Pinkleton
Scenic Design by Mimi Lien
Costume Design by Paloma Young
Lighting Design by Bradley King
Sound Design by Nicholas Pope
Music Supervision by Sunny Paladino
Starring Denée Benton, Josh Groban, Brittain Ashford, Grace McLean, Nicholas Belton, Gelsey Bell, Lucas Steele, Amber Gray, Nick Choksi
Nothing was as it should be inside the aptly named Imperial Theatre. Hosting the new musical Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, the theatre had been transformed into an early 19th century Russian nightclub with elaborate décor and ornate lighting. The proscenium was all but invisible. Audience seats, highly raked, were mounted at the back of the stage. Tables scattered about the multi-level stage seated audience members as well. Runways for the performers wove among the audience in the theatre itself and many little, round nightclub tables with glass-candle lights were embedded among orchestra seats. Paintings hung on the deep red theatre walls.
This show had better be spectacular, I thought. Or it would be the equivalent of Christmas tree decorations with no tree.
I needn’t have worried. Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 is deeply substantive in every possible way. The set décor and lighting inform the performance, the way décor and lighting should. The Great Comet is a seamless collaboration of all the elements that make the musical theatre great. It is musical theatre creativity in its highest form.
But – a warning. The first thing you must do once you’ve found your seat and taken in the décor is read the synopsis of the plot and its accompanying family tree near the center of your program. The Great Comet is based on a 70-page portion of War and Peace with many characters and even more relationships. It can be quite confusing. Perhaps this even shorter synopsis of the plot will also be of help:
Pierre (Josh Groban), a wealthy aristocrat in 1812 Moscow, is despairing of his meaningless life. Natasha, aka Natalie, (Denée Benton) and her cousin Sonya (Brittain Ashford) arrive to visit with Natasha’s godmother, Marya D (Grace McLean) and await Natasha’s fiancé, Andrey (Nicholas Belton), who is off fighting Napoleon. Natasha visits her future father-in-law, Bolkonsky (also Belton, well disguised) and sister-in-law, Mary (Gelsey Bell). Natasha is introduced to Moscow society at the Opera where she meets and falls for Anatole (Lucas Steele), who is also the brother of Pierre’s wife, Hélène (Amber Gray).
Anatole, who is already married to a woman we never meet (just as well!), seduces Natasha at a ball. Meanwhile, Pierre has a duel with Dolokhov (Nick Choksi) who has gotten too friendly with his wife, Hélène. So much for Act I. Still with me? I hope so because there’s more …
Natasha breaks off her engagement and plans to elope with Anatole. Sonya tries to stop Natasha and save her from social ruin. The elopement is soon thwarted by Marya D, who then asks Pierre for his help. He throws Anatole out of Moscow. Natasha poisons herself but recovers. Andrey cannot forgive Natasha. The great comet descends and all is soon well.
Don’t be concerned if you can’t memorize the above. Many of the songs are expository and explain what’s going on. I got a bit confused anyway, but it rarely detracted from my enjoyment of this extraordinary show, seen in a late preview.
The performances among the principals and huge 22-person ensemble are uniformly outstanding. Groban’s gorgeous, deep baritone voice resonates throughout the huge theatre. His acting, piano and accordion playing were also impressive. Denée Benton makes her Broadway debut in a role originated by Phillipa Soo of Hamilton fame. Benton is enchanting as the sweet but narcissistic Natasha. She has a compelling, lilting soprano voice. Lucas Steele is a rock star in a period musical, and he pulls it off brilliantly. His falsetto moments are a delightful surprise. Brittain Ashford, the folk-pop artist, is Sonya and sings with great feeling.
Dave Malloy is responsible for the music, lyrics, book and orchestrations. Although praise also belongs to Rachel Chavkin, the director, one imagines that it is Malloy’s vision that unites the production. The music incorporates many genres from musical theatre, opera and contemporary pop. All work to their purpose. Like Hamilton,the show is almost entirely sung. The performers in interviews refer to it as an opera, and songs in the program are referred to as arias, duets and trios, but the music is often light opera or pop-opera.
The glorious lighting design for the show, by Bradley King, is uniquely beautiful. Light bulbs strung across the orchestra seating fall and rise from dim to an annoyingly intense strobe, which was thankfully only in one scene. The lights on the small orchestra tables also rise and lower, sometimes in beat with the music. An utterly delightful effect! Chandeliers that look like those at the Metropolitan Opera House move as the scene warrants. And the great comet itself is all one could hope for.
Mimi Lien is responsible for the originality of the lavish set design. She has made the audience an integral part of the performance, and that enhanced our enjoyment. Paloma Young’s costumes were beautiful, but the younger female characters mainly wore white, which added to the character confusion. Nicholas Pope created the sound design and enabled us to hear a cohesive sound from all the performers and orchestra members scattered throughout the theatre. A Tony award for best sound design was recently eliminated, but The Great Comet might force a rethinking of that decision.
Or Matias is the music director of the ten-person orchestra, which rises to eleven people when Josh Groban plays the piano and accordion. Sam Pinkleton created the imaginative choreography that happens all around us.
The Great Comet is an ambitious production that succeeds brilliantly on every level. Four years in development, it has emerged as rich, original, accomplished musical theatre. This show is a unique and deeply satisfying experience.