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Theater review: Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 casts a bright new light on Broadway

Adam Feldman
Written by
Adam Feldman

Dave Malloy’s mercifully transporting musical Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 is both a celebration and a cause for it. Mimi Lien’s stunning set design transforms the stately Imperial Theatre into an ornate red-and-gold Russian nightclub, with stairs that wind up to the mezzanine, a sinuous catwalk that cuts through the orchestra and musicians planted strategically throughout the space. Members of the cast scatter into the audience and sit next to spectators at cabaret-style tables onstage. Director Rachel Chavkin’s approach to the show—spectacular yet intimate, theatrical yet personal—is an ideal complement to Malloy’s brilliantly unconventional musical, which breathes modern life into a section of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

Although Malloy borrows much of his language directly from Tolstoy—the Muscovite characters often narrate themselves in the third person—there is nothing pretentious about it. The show encourages us to consult the program to follow the plot (“Cuz it’s a complicated Russian novel/Everyone’s got nine different names”) but trusts its audience to be intelligent and attentive. In Malloy’s complex and eclectic score, lovely stand-alone songs are woven into a larger blanket of recitative and surprising combinations of content and genre. (In a club scene, he sets a Russian folk-song refrain amid a blast of electronica.) Bittersweet and joyous, artful and accessible, this is a Broadway party like no other.

The miracle of the Broadway version of The Great Comet is how well it preserves the spirit of the show’s much smaller 2012 production at Off Broadway’s invaluable Ars Nova. The ensemble—imaginatively costumed by Paloma Young—has been greatly expanded, and the two leads are different: Denée Benton brings a youthful impetuousness to the role of Natasha, a beautiful young girl who is drawn into a dangerous affair; and Josh Groban plays the melancholy Pierre with intensity and a simply ravishing voice. But most of the original main cast is intact, including Lucas Steele as Natasha’s callow suitor, a ripe Grace McLean as her judgmental godmother and the fascinating Amber Gray as Pierre’s sexy, self-disgusted wife; Brittain Ashford brings down the house with a heartbroken solo as Natasha’s best friend. Despite the romantic trauma of the plot, The Great Comet leaves you glowing with hope: for redemption through kindness in the face of ruin, and for a brighter future in the face of terrible omens. It’s a wonderful, soul-stirring escape.

Imperial Theatre (Broadway). Book, music and lyrics by Dave Malloy. Directed by Rachel Chavkin. With Josh Groban, Denée Benton, Lucas Steele., Brittain Ashford, Amber Gray, Grace McLean. Running time: 2hrs 35mins. One intermission. Click here for full ticket and venue information.

Follow Adam Feldman on Twitter: @FeldmanAdam

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