In 1811, a comet officially known as C/1811 F1 was visible to the naked eye for a record 260 days. The huge comet, which is often call the Comet of 1812, became a fascination for artist and writers who painted it and wrote stories with it as the focus. One of the best know literature usage was in Leo Tolstoy’s epic, “War and Peace.”
In the Tolstoy novel, he describes Pierre observing this “enormous and brilliant comet.” He went on to indicate it “was said to portend all kinds of woes and the end of the world.” From the standpoint of the Russians, the prognostication became true as the invasion of Russia by Napoleon (Patriotic War of 1812) took place.
C1811 F1 has appeared again. This time it is shaking up the Broadway theatrical world with the opening of Dave Malloy’s adaptation of “War and Peace,” as a musical entitled, “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812.”
When asked why the comet made it into the title of the show, Malloy stated, “for cosmic epicness.”
Yes, the show” is proving itself to be an epic as evidenced by the fact that it became the most Tony-nominated show of the 2017 season, garnering 12 recognitions including that for best score, book and orchestration, as well as best direction, choreography, actor, actress, featured actor, scenic, costume and lighting design.
The power and grandeur of the show hits the audience upon entering The Imperial Theatre’s auditorium. It has been totally transposed for the production. The proscenium stage has been replaced by a raked series of platforms that extends to the theatre’s back wall and ceiling.
Weaving staircases allow the actors to wander from one level to another, attenders to be seated in nooks and crannies on stage to get to their viewing platform, and musicians to be placed in varying places, including a circle in the middle of the stage area which contains a grand piano.
The entire theatre becomes a performance space as the orchestra, mezzanine and balcony have platforms that allow for performance pieces to be done immediately next to seated audience members.
The theatre’s walls have been draped with heavy maroon material, with varying antique framed photos and decorative art pieces hung on them. It is as if one is in a grand Russian villa of old.
The wonder of the set is not the only thing The Comet has going for it. The Malloy well-written music combines traditionally played ethnic, folk, classical, indie rock with EDM. The sound of accordions, violins, tambourines, balalaika, and wood blocks, as well as piano and synthesizer, give the score a unique, not often heard on Broadway, sound.
Malloy’s book and lyrics, like Russian literature, is filled with great angst, over-exaggerated emotion and melodrama. Wisely, the author has avoided the Russian tradition of each person having numerous full names plus diminutives.
The tale is set in Moscow in 1812. Pierre (Josh Groban), a middle-aged aristocrat, is living an existential life, often influenced by an over-abundance of alcohol. Into his sphere of life comes Natasha (Denée Benton), a beautiful young lady, who is visiting the Russian capital, while her fiancé, Andrey (Nicholas Belton) is at war. She is seduced by Anatole (Lucas Steele), an attractive and manipulating married man. Her social standing is ruined. Her only hope lies with Pierre using his influence to save her reputation.
As can be expected in a Russian saga, Pierre helps Natasha gain her sense of self. Afterwards, almost as a payment for his good deed, he experiences a moment of enlightenment as he sees the Comet of 1812 in the night sky.
The physical setting is impressive. The musical presentation, grand. The vocalizations, mesmerizing. The stylized acting, character correct.
Tony nominee for Best Actor, Josh Groban’s voice is everything one would expect from the uber-talented performer. His aria “Dust and Ashes” captivates. His duets “Pierre & Anatole,” with Lucas Steele, is compelling as is his “Pierre & Andrey,” sung with Nicholas Belton and “Pierre & Natasha,” a duet with Denée Benton.
The gorgeous and talented Benton is charming as Natasha not only singing well, but creating a vulnerable young woman who is charmed into a seduction. She well deserves her Tony nomination as Best Actress in a Musical.
Steele is Iagoesque as the innocent looking but evil villain, who takes away Natasha’s innocence. He moves with arrogant ease, smiling with manipulative pleasure, while displaying no remorse. His is another well-deserved Tony nomination for Best Featured Actor in a Musical.
Those outside of Gotham, who wait for hit Broadway musicals to come to their city, may be disappointed. Trying to replicate the theatre’s interior may be cost prohibitive and impossible to achieve in some of the venues in which touring shows perform. A watered-down version of the grandeur of the Great White Way performance probably will not have the same effect, even though the story and music will be the same. Maybe this is a good time to go to New York.
Capsule judgement: The total effect of “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812” is breathtaking. The traditional music, dress, stylized acting, and Josh Groban’s booming voice add to the over-arching effect. Yes, this is more than a musical, it is a spectacle of enormous proportions.
What: “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812”
Where: Imperial Theatre, 249 West 45th Street
Open ended run
Matinees: Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday
Evenings: Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday
(Note: Josh Groban will not perform 5/4 through 5/9, 5/16, 6/13, 6/20 or 6/27. He will play his final performance on 7/2. Okieriete Onaodowan begins performing as Pierre on 7/3.