Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 – Imperial Theatre, New York

119529 Denée Benton and Brittain Ashford in NATASHA

Denée Benton and Brittain Ashford in Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 at the Imperial Theatre, New York. Picture: Chad Batka

Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 continues at the Imperial Theatre, New York.

Star rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

The passionate, flamboyant characters that inhabit Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace come blazingly off the page in pop opera style in Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812. The musical burrows deep into their souls as well, and the result is a stunningly original piece of work that elevates the pop opera genre to new heights on Broadway.

The music, lyrics, book and orchestrations are all by Dave Malloy. His programme bio’s list of some of his earlier works provides a hint of Malloy’s bent for classical deconstruction. They include such titles as Preludes, ‘a musical fantasia set in the hypnotised mind of Sergei Rachmaninoff”, and Three Pianos, ‘a drunken romp through Schubert’s Winterreise’.

Natasha, Pierre had its start at a tiny but prestigious off-Off-Broadway space known as Ars Nova. To tempt audiences, it also served a Russian-themed meal in nightclub style along with the drama. Ecstatically received, it moved on to Off-Broadway mountings in specially constructed tents.

It now has reached Broadway at the Imperial Theatre, an esteemed showplace refitted with performance runways cutting through the audience, onstage audience seating and stairways that reach from the stage to the balcony, all to accommodate the brilliant and endlessly inventive staging of Rachel Chavkin in collaboration with choreographer Sam Pinkleton.

Malloy’s script adapts just a small early slice of Tolstoy’s heavyweight masterpiece concerning the effect of the Napoleonic Wars on the Russian aristocracy. He centres on the romantic temptations that befall the young and magnetically innocent Countess Natasha, while she awaits in Moscow the return of her betrothed, Prince Andrey, from the warfront.

The temptation comes in the person of the handsome wastrel Anatole, who is secretly married, but urges Natasha to elope with him. When Anatole’s villainy is revealed, Natasha attempts suicide.

Running parallel to Natasha’s story is the spiritual plight of Pierre, Andrey’s close friend and Anatole’s brother-in-law. Unhappily married to the wanton Helene, Pierre is virtually a recluse, spending his time drinking and reading.

When he is called upon to foil Anatole’s plot and comfort Natasha, the young woman awakens in him a sense of purpose. It’s further strengthened when, in the quiet closing moments of the piece, he comes upon the presence of the titular comet. “It seems to me,” he sings softly, “that this comet feels me, feels my softened and uplifted soul and my newly melted heart, now blossoming into a new life.”

For the most part, though, the sung-through show is a riot of movement and music performed by perhaps the most exuberant company to be found on the Main Stem, often playing instruments as they prance through the audience and onto the stage. While no meal is served, among the happy touches are the little pierogi (cheese or meat-filled dumplings) they throw out to the audience at the start.

Among the principals, Denée Benton makes a glorious Broadway debut as a graceful and animated Natasha. She creates a multi-dimensional character whose naivete is eventually shattered by anger and despair.

Lucas Steele brings a compensating liveliness and humour along with a playful sexiness to balance out the essential depravity of Anatole, and there are noteworthy turns by Brittain Ashford as Natasha’s sympathetic cousin Sonya, Grace McLean as Natasha’s domineering godmother, and Amber Gray as Pierre’s haughty and promiscuous wife.

The marquee name in the cast is the celebrated singer Josh Groban playing Pierre. He was, however, ‘under the weather’ the evening of the performance I attended. The role was taken over by his standby, Scott Stangland, who played it when the show was mounted last winter at American Repertory Theatre in the Boston area.

Simply put, Stangland triumphed. He delved deep into Pierre’s tortured soul and seasoned the journey with occasional levity and an omnipresent humanity.

While there are the faintest echoes of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Malloy’s music has its own distinctive flavour, stretching from pulsating Russian folk and urgent, rock-style recitative to lightly melodic arias and soaring character-revealing anthems. And he is able to provide climactic moment after climactic moment.

Natasha’s first night at the Moscow opera is a swirling fantasy and is followed quickly by the drunken chaos at a Russian officers’ club. And when on the brink of his planned elopement, Anatole sings ‘Goodbye my gypsy lovers’, it leads into a company phantasmagoria of gypsy melody that threatens to shake the walls of the theatre.

His lyrics are often wittily marked by self-referential interpolations. Characters explain their motives and actions in the third person, and Tolstoy’s novel itself is cited in the prologue. The chorus tells us: ‘…it’s a complicated Russian novel. Everyone’s got nine different names. So, look it up in your programme.’

And indeed, the Playbill includes a full-page ‘Family Tree’ with drawings of the characters. Furthermore, if you should lose the thread of the plot in the glorious rush of the lavish costumes by Paloma Young, the dynamic changes in the lighting designed by Bradley King on Mimi Lien’s eye-grabbing set and the ever-surprising turns of Chavkin’s staging, the programme also contains a scene by scene breakdown of the story. It’s helpful, but like the meal no longer served, it’s not really necessary for enjoyment of this theatrical feast.

Ron Cohen

Readers may also be interested in:

Finian’s Rainbow – Irish Repertory Theatre, New York – Review.

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