Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 14, 2016
Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 Music, lyrics, book & orchestrations by Dave Malloy. Adapted from War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. Directed by Rachel Chavkin. Choreographed by Sam Pinkleton. Music Supervision Sonny Paladino. Scenic design by Mimi Lien. Costume design by Paloma Young. Lighting design by Bradley King. Sound design by Nicholas Pope. Hair & wig design by Leah J. Loukas. Music coordinator by John Miller. Technical supervision by Hudson Theatrical Associates. Cast: Denée Benton, Josh Groban, with Brittain Ashford, Gelsey Bell, Nicholas Belton, Nick Choksi, Amber Gray, Grace McLean, Paul Pinto, Scott Stangland, Lucas Steele, Sumayya Ali, Courtney Bassett, Josh Canfield, Ken Clark, Erica Dorfler, Lulufall, 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.
The tactics employed by director Rachel Chavkin include transforming one of Broadway's most distinguished musical houses into a Russian cabaret-tavern, with the stage bulldozed to make way for seats, tables, stairs, and gangplanks that stretch into the orchestra, up to the mezzanine, and who knows where else. (The 10-piece orchestra, conducted with gusto by Or Matias, is ensconced in a pit at the center of it all.) And when the action explodes, which it does pretty much nonstop for two and a half hours, it does so all around you, regardless of whether you're sitting in the auditorium proper or in any of the countless rows that stretch up and far behind the action. Actors, singers, and dancers flood the aisles and every spare nook and cranny they can find to perch, watch, and belt pre-revolutionary Russia into vibrant being.
Scenic designer Mimi Lien has outdone herself, that's for sure, with the throbbing crimson color scheme that consumes every square inch of the playing space as striking and shocking as anything you're likely to see for most of this season. Paloma Young's costumes, too, strike just the proper balance between lush and garish, a swirling visual bar fight between peasants and tzars. Bradley King's lights bounce between caressing spotlights and rock-concert unpredictability. Sam Pinkleton's flashy, thrusting choreography fits right in to the go-for broke aesthetic. And were any or all of this to strike you as incongruous given the setting, it would be understandableand I'd probably even agree with youif this were any other show.
But for Malloy, the past is just an extension of the present. He uses the baudy performing traditions of more-or-less modern-day burlesque to capture the period's decadence, at once exciting and chilling, and force us to confront the characters' troubles on terms of our own vernacular. Casting a genuine pop star, Josh Groban, in the key role of Pierre, a paunchy, unhappily married sadsack around whom a shocking amount of the world turns, further underscores this. Can you look beyond a musical sex symbol to see the devastation a life of emotional rot has wrought on this well-meaning, poorly executed man? You're going to have to.
Not that you should worry. Besides being a natural theatre singer, with a piercing but full-bodied baritone that's made a home just outside the heft of opera, Groban is also an engagingly unfussy actor who projects a gentle frustration that's a clinging fit for a man who's second on everyone's list (including his own). There's an unavoidable air of lost opportunity about Pierre, the sense that he could have been if only he'd been givenor takenbetter chances, and this tinge of regret is even easier to accept with Groban than it was when Malloy himself played the part during its 2013 run at the pop-up venue Kazino. (It had played to sell-out crowds the preceding fall at Ars Nova, which retainsafter much public consternationits above-the-title billing as siring this production.)
Malloy, who is credited with the book, music, lyrics, and orchestrations, combines everything in a dizzying frenzy of sound and spinning drama that captures both the intimate yearnings of these people and the epic that's sweeping them all straight into history. He shifts seamlessly between small, shattering moments and theater-filling showstoppers, all while convincing you that both styles are critical components of the same universe. If it feels like it's forever in danger of falling apart, that's what makes it so riveting.
It helps to have first-rate headliners in Groban and Benton, who, if a bit brasher and showier than the role's originator, Phillipa Soo (late of Hamilton), is wonderfully sensitive. The rest of the cast, too, delivers the goods with no shortage of haughty, saucy fun. Steele, McLean, and Amber Gray, who plays Pierre's wife, Hélène, go after this most boldly, but down to the most onlooker-like ensemble member, you won't find a person in the company who isn't completely committed.
This is all good, but also not quite enough. Though I remain an admirer of Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, I find that its flaws are even more evident now, and Chavkin and Malloy are not able to disguise how hard they're working to hold it all together. Even more than was the case Off-Broadway, the staging seems to search for reasons to not confine itself to a conventional playing space, and it rarely finds them. Following who's singing what is not always easy, and the characters' tendency to vanish and reappear somewhere totally different seconds later comes across as less organic than overeager. There can be virtue in stillness, too, but nothing is ever really still, and that can make even an evening this interesting just plain exhausting.
A similar conflict emerges in the writing. Malloy walks a thin line between serious adaptation and rib-poking irony, and does not always get the ratios correct. The frantic prologue, for example, contains the lyric, "You are at the opera / Gonna have to study up a little bit / If you wanna keep with the plot / Cuz its a complicated Russian novel / Everyones got nine different names / So look it up in your program / We'd appreciate it, thanks a lot," which is almost too clever for anyone's benefit. The same is true of the second-act opener: "In 19th century Russia we write letters / We write letters / We put down in writing / What is happening in our minds." Uh, no kidding. And a sprawling production number several scenes later pontificates on the virtues of a troika driver for no reason that the story explains.
If it's a technical matter ("We need an Act II blowout"), okay, but Malloy has not much bothered with typical musical-theatre niceties elsewhere. With precious few exceptions, most notably Pierre's gorgeous, self-examining "Dust and Ashes" (which Groban sounds fantastic singing), there's a lot of recitative-like writing and clunky, monotonous, and repetitive melodies. Even the heavier arias don't so much soar as they do hover, poised to take off but too reluctant to actually do it. As a result, there's not much about the score that's musically satisfying, no matter how energetic it might be. You can mutter with as much liveliness as you want, but you're still muttering.
Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 is rather better than that, but it's ultimately more a triumph of style than it is a classic piece of writingit never really becomes, say, musical theatre's own War and Peace. It's excellent at what it does, but, for all the splash, it's not clear that what it does ultimately matters all that much. You're too distracted by the skin-tight bodices, the starburst chandeliers, the vodka-drunken party atmosphere. The crazy staging just imparts its own kind of hangover: The more it tries to take your mind off what doesn't work, the less you're able to focus on anything else.