Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812 review: Broadway welcomes Josh Groban and immersive theater

An opera with an unwieldy title based on Tolstoy’s War and Peace seemed an unlikely crowd-pleaser, but I was thrilled when I saw it Off-Broadway, first at Ars Nova in 2012, and again in a circus tent in 2013. When they announced a Broadway run, however, I wondered how they could possibly pull it off.

Josh Groban and Denee Benton in Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812 (Photo: Chad Batka)

Josh Groban and Denee Benton in Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812 (Photo: Chad Batka)

More production photos at NewYorkTheater.me

They’ve done it! Now installed in the wondrously transformed Imperial Theater on Broadway, Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 is extraordinary, the freshest, most inviting show on Broadway this season. Great Comet is especially awesome in its stagecraft, as well as in its music and in its performances. The large, exciting cast includes nearly two dozen who are making their Broadway debuts, including Denee Benton and Josh Groban as the titular characters.

No, the show is not exactly the same innovative site-specific immersive theater piece that it was Off-Broadway, when theatergoers got a full Russian meal and vodka, while the performers danced on the countertops and tables and sat down next to us to sing in our ears or kiss our hands. But it’s all the more remarkable for being adapted so effectively to the larger, commercial, conventional space.

Josh Groban and the cast of Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812 (Photo: Chad Batka)

Josh Groban and the cast of Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812 (Photo: Chad Batka)

Director Rachel Chavkin and set designer Mimi Lien in particular deserve kudos for staging on Broadway something very close to the kind of immersive theater that’s lately been intriguing theatergoers all over the world – everywhere but Broadway, until now.

The Story

This is not Leo Tolstoy’s first time on Broadway. Eight of his novels and stories have been adapted theatrically for the Great White Way, starting with Redemption in 1903 (seven years before he died), and including three Anna Kareninas (one a musical) and even a previous War and Peace (albeit short-lived.)  But it’s a fair bet that the latest Tolstoy stage adaptation is the most fun.

The story of Great Comet is taken from one small section of the mammoth War and Peace (“Book 8: 1811-1812” in my copy.)

Pierre (Josh Groban) is a wealthy aristocrat living in Moscow just before Napoleon invades Russia and burns down the city.  Pierre is alienated and alone, overeating and drinking too much. Natasha (Denee Benton) is a young beauty who traveled with her cousin Sonya (Brittain Ashford) to Moscow to stay for the winter, awaiting the return of her fiancé from the front lines.  But at the opera, a gathering place for decadent Moscow society, she meets a young officer named Anatole (the seductive Lucas Steele), who seduces her, although he is married; Anatole and Natasha make plans to run away together.  Fearing Natasha will be ruining her life, cousin Sonya is determined to stop their elopement, as is Natasha’s godmother, Marya D (Grace McLean.) Marya D calls for help from a family friend – Pierre.

Denee Benton and Brittain Ashford in Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812 (Photo: Chad Batka)

Denee Benton and Brittain Ashford in Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812 (Photo: Chad Batka)

This being a Russian novel, the plot is more complicated than I’ve presented it, involving a host of ancillary characters. It’s a testament to the adaptation by Dave Malloy (the creator of the book, music, lyrics, and orchestrations) that he embraces the complications, but also takes great pains to make everything as accessible as possible. There is a full-page synopsis of the plot in the program, plus another page with a “family tree,” showing the characters’ relationships with one another.

But that’s not all. The very first song, entitled “Prologue,” introduces each of the characters bluntly (“Anatole is hot…Helene is a slut.”), and features this repeated, amusing refrain:

And this is all in your program
You are at the opera
Gonna have to study up a little bit
If you wanna keep with the plot
Cuz it’s a complicated Russian novel

Everyone’s got nine different names
So look it up in your program
We’d appreciate it, thanks a lot
Da da da
Da da da”

The characters also often explain themselves, sometimes in the third person.

But for all the care taken in making the plot clear, the truth is it’s not necessary to follow the story at all in order to enjoy the show.

The Music and the Performances

Josh Groban plays the accordion for that first song, which has a wonderfully bouncy tune and lyrics reminiscent of the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”

“The Prologue” is not just a great introduction to the characters, but to Dave Malloy’s eclectic and electrifying score, a mix of  rock, folk, klezmer, country, R&B, reggae, even techno – and lovely ballads. For a sung-through musical, there are a surprising number of catchy tunes. Some seem tailor-made for their singers – which they were; Malloy wrote some of the melodies with the specific performers in mind.

“Dust and Ashes,” the one new melody since the Off-Broadway productions, certainly seems written with Josh Groban in mind, and he delivers it in fine voice and with great feeling, as he does his role as a whole – something that won’t surprise Groban’s many fans. What may surprise his fans is that “Dust and Ashes” is one of the few solos given to Groban, who replaced Malloy as Pierre.  This is not a Groban concert. But this shouldn’t disappoint too many people, given the talents of the other cast members.

Denee Benton is a lovely, golden-voiced if emotionally distant Natasha, a role originated by Phillipa Soo, who went on to Hamilton stardom and will soon star in Amelie on Broadway.

Brittain Ashford is exquisite as Sonya especially in the soulful ballad, “Sonya Alone.” Amber Gray, who was such a slinky chanteuse as the devil’s wife in Hadestown, here plays Helene, who is Pierre’s unfaithful wife (hence, the “slut”) and Anatole’s sister, and sings one of the catchiest songs in Great Comet,  Charming, with the delightfully villainous refrain:

Oh how she blushes, how she blushes, my pretty!
Oh how she blushes, how she blushes, my pretty!
Charmante, charmante!

But singling out these few might give the wrong impression, since Great Comet is at its heart an ensemble piece that relies on all its performances not just to entertain, but to help create the all-encompassing environment.

The Stagecraft

And it’s that environment that will win over most theatergoers.

The Imperial is not just decorated to look like a Russian tearoom, with glittering chandeliers, oil paintings in gilded frames set against red velour wallpaper, and a lobby turned into a hallway for an underground nightclub, plastered with posters in Russian. The auditorium itself has been reconfigured so that there is no big stage, but rather many little ones criss-crossing through the audience.There are ramps built up into the balcony. Some seats are chairs  around cabaret tables.  This set-up allows for the performers, dressed sumptuously and mischievously in Paloma Young’s punk aristocratic costumes, to dance, and sing, and play instruments throughout the auditorium — and, above all, to interact directly with members of the audience.

There is no longer a sit-down Russian dinner as there was Off-Broadway, but most theatergoers get a chance at pirogi, distributed in little Chinese take-out boxes, or plastic eggs filled with pellets to use as castanets in a particular rousing number.  And performers still sing directly to, or even nuzzle. select, random members of the audience – whether this makes them lucky or unlucky is up to them to decide.But I’d say theatergoers in general are lucky to have Great Comet on Broadway.

Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 is on stage at The Imperial Theatre (249 W. 45th Street, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10036)
Tickets and details

 

Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 . Book, Music, Lyrics, and Orchestrations by Dave Malloy, directed by Rachel Chavkin, choreographed by Sam Pinkleton, scenic design by Mimi Lien, costume design by Paloma Young, lighting design by Bradley King, sound design by Nicholas Pope, wig and hair design by Leah J. Loukas, music supervision by Sonny Paladino, music direction by Or Matias, music coordination by John Miller, production stage manager Karen Meek.

Featuring Denée Benton as Natasha; Josh Groban as Pierre; Brittain Ashford as Sonya; Gelsey Bell as Mary, opera singer, maidservant; Nicholas Belton as Andrey, Bolkonsky; Nick Choksi as Dolokhov; Amber Gray as Hélène; Grace McLean as Marya D.; Paul Pinto as Balaga, servant, opera singer; Lucas Steele as Anatole; Sumayya Ali; Courtney Bassett, Josh Canfield, Ken Clark, Erica Dorfler,Lulu Fall, Ashley Pérez Flanagan, Paloma Garcia-Lee, Nick Gaswirth, Alex Gibson, Billy Joe Kiessling, Mary Spencer Knapp, Reed Luplau, Brandt Martinez, Andrew Mayer, Azudi Onyejekwe, Pearl Rhein, Heath Saunders, Ani Taj, Cathryn Wake, Katrina Yaukey, Lauren Zakrin. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.

Jonathan Mandell About Jonathan Mandell

Jonathan Mandell is a third-generation New York City journalist and a digital native, who has written about the theater for a range of publications, including Playbill, American Theatre Magazine, the New York Times, Newsday, Backstage, NPR.com and CNN.com. He holds a BA from Yale and an MA from Columbia University, and has taught at the Columbia School of Journalism and New York University. He blogs at http://www.NewYorkTheater.me and Tweets as @NewYorkTheater.

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