NEW YORK – The pop opera “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812” has finally arrived on Broadway and with much success.
The show was inspired by a 70-page section from Tolstoy’s voluminous classic War and Peace. Dave Malloy has adapted it and provided the music, lyrics and orchestrations, and in its early off-Broadway days he even acted the leading role of Pierre.
Today, Pierre is played by the popular concert singer Josh Groban and Natasha is a steller newcomer, Denee Benton. With a huge supporting cast of expert musical performers, they lead us through the bustling tribulations of early 19th-century life in Moscow.
The show has had a long evolution. It began in 2012 at off-Broadway’s minuscule theater Ars Nova, then traveled downtown to the meatpacking district to a Kazino tent, then out of town to the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass. Now, it is housed at the Imperial Theater on West 45th Street, a perfectly named venue for a musical about Russia’s rococo age.
Talented director Rachel Chavkin and gifted scenic designer Mimi Lien have turned the Imperial into a Russophilic salon that gives the audience a feel of oldtime Moscow nightclub. The set is draped with red velvet curtains and adorned with gold framed paintings of the era. Starburst chandeliers designed by Bradley King light up the proceedings.
A third of the patrons are seated onstage at tiered banquettes and tables, while the orchestra and mezzanine audiences are connected to the action by runways that all of the actors use. The show’s circuslike spectacle surrounds you and this intimacy guarantees that no matter what price you pay for a seat, you are always in the middle of the action. If you are lucky, you might get a free pierogi from the nearby Russian Samovar restaurant or party favors flung by the chorus.
This city of Moscow in 1812 is full of life, song, romance, dance and drama. The only precarious signs of the future are the musical's first words, “There's a war going on out there somewhere,” and a large, hovering painting, stage right, of Napoleon – who in a matter of months will invade Russia and instigate the burning of Moscow.
Though Mr. Malloy’s pocket-sized story is considerably smaller than Tolstoy's tome, the basic tale he tells is still about Natasha, a young, naive aristocrat who arrives in Moscow, falls in love with a questionable man at the opera named Anatole (Lucas Steele) and is rescued by the moody, though caring, Pierre.
Mr. Malloy presents not only Pierre, Natasha and most of the principal members of Tolstoy's family tree – such Pierre's estranged wife Helene (Amber Gray), Natasha's cousin Sonya (Brittain Ashford) and her fiance, at war, Andrey (Nicholas Belton) – but also a half dozen other prominent characters from the novel. While Tolstoy wrote a detailed and exhaustive look at these Russians of the period, Mr. Malloy's short-handed cabaret style presentation still gives the audience a taste of the great writer’s brilliant saga.
Both Mr. Groban and Ms. Benton are making their Broadway debuts in this production. Mr. Groban is well known for selling millions of CD’s; you know why when his tenor voice fills the theater. Yet he plays Pierre’s lowkeyed character to a tee. He follows the Stanislavski style of acting with careful naturalism, wearing padding because Tolstoy emphasizes that Pierre was “stout.” He also wears the large glasses of the era, and his beard looks shaggy.
Between songs, he plays the piano in the pit and the accordion. His best song is “Dust and Ashes,” which describes the way Pierre feels about his life before he meets Natasha.
From her first appearance, Ms. Benton shines as the star of the show as an acting and musical wonder. She has a rapturous soprano voice and is a beauty in the aristocratic clothes of the day. Ms. Benton sings all through the evening and toward the end, she gets the chance to do a great duet, “Pierre and Natasha,” with Mr. Groban.
Costume designer Paloma Young dresses all the principals in period costumes and the ensemble in modern garb.
Mr. Malloy’s music is a rollicking mixture of jazz and ballads with hints of Balkan folk tunes. It’s a percussive mixture of electronic music that usually is designed for nightclubs, festivals and dance spaces and not for theater.
The orchestra numbers eight: four are in the pit at the front of the stage; the four other musicians are scattered throughout the auditorium. Since Mr. Malloy’s pop opera is mostly sung, though, a lot of the music didn’t stick in my head with the exception of Mr. Goban’s “Dust and Ashes.”
Like it or not, Andrew Llyod Webber melodies and Boublil-Schonberg’s songs in “Les Miserables” and “Miss Saigon” tend to stay with you after the curtain falls. Since theater is such a collaborative enterprise, Mr. Malloy probably should try working with book writers or lyricists to feed into his creativity, which is formidable.
The four years it has taken this musical to reach a Broadway home have allowed Ms. Chavkin to whip the show into impeccable shape. Her staging has a cohesive quality, as does the integrated choreography Sam Pinkleton has created
“Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812” is an entertaining theatrical trip into another other worldly Russia. With its flawless cast and accessible epic take on Tolstoy, audiences can’t help but enjoy themselves.
Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.