By Tulis McCall
Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 is based on a sliver of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. The AND is very important here because it is insurance that the comet will show up. It does. In the last gasping nanno-seconds of the production while Josh Grobin (Pierre), in fine voice, finishes up his final-final lament.
This is the story of Natasha (Denée Benton) a young woman brought to Moscow to while away the hours buying dresses and attending balls while her fiancé Andrey (Nicholas Belton) is off to fight the war (of 1812 – we had one here as well – busy year). She and her cousin Sonya (Brittain Ashford) are left with Natasha’s godmother Marya D. (Grace McLean who positively crackles). Soon they are seduced by the glitter of Moscow. The war is far away and life and winter are brimming with possibilities. When Natasha is spotted by Anatole (Lucas Steele) who is a womanizer of the most attractive and slimy sort, she becomes the center of his desire. His passion has no boundaries and he enlists the help of his sister Hélène (the spectacular Amber Gray recently seen in Hadestown ) to get Natasha to a certain ball so that he may, in words of one syllable, seduce her. Hmmmnnn sounds like a certain someone on a bus…..
Now mind you, this is the first sign of a plot point, and it comes a full 20-30 minutes into the show. Prior to that we are greeted with what can only be called a pageant. It is a mighty one. Rachel Chavkin’s direction has a grand sense of style and movement. She has refined the staging to the tiniest degree and this superb cast never misses a beat. Choreography by Sam Pinkleton, sets by Mimi Lien, costumes by Paloma Young and the lighting by Bradley King (with the exception of heavy use of strobes) all fit together like a Disney Spectacular in you lap. The ensemble is bold and vibrant, and the choral performance would rival any holiday choir. Mormon Tabernacle – eat your heart out.
Once this plot point does arrive, however, everything settles into predictability. And PS I have never read War and Peace, just for the record. The production morphs into Anna Karenina meets Godspell. Great sweeping trails of song about desire (he to her) and love/fear (she to him) and how this is not such a very good way for a betrothed woman to act (everyone except Hélène to her). Soon Natasha has thrown the proverbial caution to the wind and tossed Andrey under the bus in favor of the beautifully appointed dilettante (why is he not in the army – anyone?) who, when he hears her speak of love looks like someone who won an election he had not planned on winning.
The talent here is mighty. Across the board. The story, however, could have been condensed into a tight 90 minutes extravaganza. As it is the themes are repeated over and over and over – and not in nuanced ways. Repetition overcomes talent as well as spectacle and wears the listener down.
As to the seating – this is part of the pageantry. There are audience members sprinkled creatively throughout the stage in seats as “upholstered banquettes, arm chairs and regular chairs. If you fancy something like this, let me point out the seating chart. There are a few rows that look like ribs at the bottom of the chart. They face the stage and out to the house. If you sit in the top three as they are represented here – you will not see anything that happens downstage. Which is about 50% of the show. And it you sit in the top seats of the other rows you are pretty much in the same boat.
It is always a wonder, when I read other reviewers, to think that we all see roughly the same production. The heaps of praise from certain corners is substantial. To be sure this is a visual spectacle that you rarely see on Broadway. Without the spectacle, however, the story does not stand up.
Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 – Music, lyrics, book, and orchestrations by Dave Malloy, adapted from War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy; directed by Rachel Chavkin
Cast: Denée Benton (Natasha), Josh Groban (Pierre), Brittain Ashford (Sonya), Gelsey Bell (Mary/Opera Singer/Maidservant), Nicholas Belton (Andrey/Bolkonsky), Nick Choksi (Dolokhov), Amber Gray (Hélène), Grace McLean (Marya D.), Paul Pinto (Balaga/Servant/Opera Singer) and Lucas Steele (Anatole). Standby for Pierre: Scott Stangland.
Ensemble: 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.
Choreography by Sam Pinkleton; music supervision by Sonny Paladino; sets by Mimi Lien; costumes by Paloma Young; lighting by Bradley King.
At the Imperial Theatre, 252 West 45th Street for an open run. 2 hours and 40 minutes with one intermission.