Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Review of "Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812"

Note:  Josh Groban was ill the night I attended the performance.

 I have never seen a proscenium arch theater be so transformed for a Broadway musical as what has been done at the Imperial Theatre for the new show, Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812.  The set, designed to appear as a lavish Russian salon, is multi-tiered, ramps and stairways appear and disappear like an M.C. Escher drawing, small tables and chairs are arrayed about the performing space, and audience members are scattered throughout the stage.  Even before the production begins, costumed actors and actresses are mingling about, chatting with the crowd, and engaging the audience. 
Scott Stangland as Pierre in "Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812."

The musical is based on a very small section of the Russian classic “War and Peace.”  Like Les Miserables, a one-page summary has been conveniently published in the Playbill for reference and guidance to the plot and characters.  When the show begins it does so with an almost drunken fervor as the cast quickly outlines the show in the breathtaking opening number, “Prologue.”  Librettist Dave Malloy keeps the foot on the gas as he impressively encapsulates the passage from Leo Tolstoy’s novel into an intriguing and entertaining spectacle.  The story revolves around the alluring and glamorous, but naïve Natasha and her more mature cousin, Sonay, who visit Moscow for fun and excitement while Natasha’s finance, Andrey, is away at war.  During her time immersed in the city’s nightlife she meets and is seduced by the magnetic, narcissistic officer Anatole, which subsequently ruins her standing in society.  Pierre, her husband-to-be’s best friend, seeks to quell the turmoil and restore her sullied reputation with discouraging results.  Other characters weaved into the plot include Helene, Pierre’s carousing wife; Marya D, Natasha’s stern and controlling godmother; Andrey’s idiosyncratic father, Prince Bolkonsky and sister, Mary; and Anatole’s jovial friend, Dolokhov.
Part of the set from "Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812."
The score, also by Dave Malloy, has been described by the composer as an "electropop opera."  Like Hamilton it effectively mixes numerous musical styles--rock, folk, electronic dance music along with classic Broadway fare—into a strikingly affecting whole.  The works can be uplifting, poignant, and unabashedly joyous.  The songs narrate the developments within the plot and express the emotional thoughts of the characters.

The cast is outstanding.  Three notables are Denee Benton as the ravishing, unsophisticated Natasha.  The actress can appear pompously regal-like in one instance and child-like in another.  You feel for her situation while also silently chastising her for her careless and care-free ways.  Lucas Steele is winning as the arrogant, self-centered Anatole.  Initially, a foppish cad, the actor wins our sympathy by the musical’s conclusion as someone who has found, then lost, true love.  Scott Stangland, as Pierre, does an admirable job substituting for the ailing Josh Groban.  He originated the part at A.R.T. in Cambridge, MA during the pre-Broadway run so he knows the role well.  His voice is strong, musicianship first-rate, and he is able to convey a melancholy and philosophical spirit.
Denee Benton as Natasha in "Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812."
Sam Pinkleton’s choreography seamlessly melds into the flow of the production with cast members not only flittering throughout the performing area, but also in the aisles of the theater.  The dance numbers are a mash-up of so many styles from elegant promenades to traditional Russian folk to industrial techno club gyrations.

Director Rachel Chavkin deserves huge praise for the diverse and complex tableaus she has conceived, which produce an almost intoxicating sensory overload.  Movement is constant throughout the production with scenes developing in one corner and then suddenly materializing from a different part of the stage.  This machination keeps the audience dazzled and entranced.  There is never an tiresome moment, even if the goings-on are less then appealing.

As previously mentioned, the set design by Mimi Lien is a wonderment of style, execution, and grand flourishes, which heighten the stagecraft of the production.  This would not be the same musical without her spark of creativity and ingenuity.  Bradley King pulls out all the stops in his lighting design with red and blue hues helping to set the dramatic tone, spotlights pinpointing the action and even strobes that energize a raucous nightclub scene.  Paloma Young’s costumes range from majestic, imperial gowns to Bolshevik chic to hipster club ware.

Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, even without Josh Groban, is an absorbing, exhilarating piece of theater.

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