Thursday, November 03, 2016

Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812

The great comet in question was actually in 1811. Just sayin'. Not like it matters: Broadway musicals are hardly the medium through which accurate historical information gets passed along to the masses, and if you don't believe me, you'll be surprised to learn that in reality, this country's founding generation was built overwhemingly of white dudes who didn't know shit from shinola about rap. But the fact that the real comet was in 1811 and the one in Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet shows up in 1812 (in truth, it was still visible early that year) bugs me a little because someone clearly thought long and hard about changing the date, in the same way that someone--hell, maybe the same someone--thought long and hard about how it might be cool to throw little boxes of potato pelmeni at the audience before the show and also about how it might be cool to have chandeliers that constantly rise and fall over the hyped-up action, and also animal masks and day-glo clothing and strobe lights, but did not put the same amount of thought into plotting, pacing, or character development.

And yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever, I know I sound old and fussy about this, call me an old biddy. But hear me out: I know full well that some shows are about things other than that old-fashioned Golden Age of Musicals shit. But I saw Blue Man Group before you were born, probably. I saw The Donkey Show before knowing anything about it or what the hell it was, and it blew me away. Last summer, I saw Hadestown, which was also more about mood and space and multisensory immersion than it was about plot and character, and I haven't been able to stop listening to the concept album on which it was based, or thinking about aspects of the production since.

I had high hopes for Natasha precisely because of my experiences at these aforementioned shows, as well as because Rachel Chavkin impressed me immensely last season with her moodily gorgeous production of The Royale at Lincoln Center. Also, I've long regretted the fact that I never saw Natasha during its original run, first at the teeny Ars Nova and then in a huge pop-up tent in the meatpacking district, where I bet it was really cool.

Aspects of it are really cool on Broadway, too. Chavkin is ingenious when it comes to utilizing space, and I can't think of a show on Broadway that manages to immerse its audience--even those of us who saw it up in the cheap rear balcony seats--any better than this one does. The stage has room for something like 200 audience members, who sit amid the action, and the entire house is covered in red velvet and photographs and outfitted with tiny little table lamps. The cast makes frequent visits up to the mezzanine and balcony to dance, engage with spectators, toss dumplings around, and harmonize in venue-shaking sonorities that I very much appreciated. There are, as my fellow blogger Sandra noted in her slightly more positive review of the show, a few truly moving numbers that bring the house down. I was especially taken by "Dust and Ashes," Groban-as-Pierre's big solo number that muses moodily about the difficulty and miracle of finding love; "Sonya Alone," too, digs deep into the nature and demands of real friendship, and stayed with me long after the show. But the rest of the score, with a few motifs here and there as the exceptions, struck me as a weird combination of very complicated (lots of chromaticism, lots of tricky meters, lots of unexpected melodic directions) and simultaneously repetitive and uninteresting.

The production tries hard to make up for the lack of character depth or clear plot with a lot of energy and pep. There is lots of winding through aisles, lots of fast-paced dance numbers, lots of constant motion. But it signifies nothing; at one point, right before intermission, a friend I saw it with erupted in near-manic giggles at the masked ball scene, which sent many members of the enormous cast up into the balcony in various animal masks and typically amped choreography. "Of course there are animal masks!" she cackled. Why not, really? There is just about everything else.

I suspect the correct way to see a show like this would be to sit right in the middle of it--either on the stage or, if one could go back in time, under a huge tent, where Russian food (and lots of vodka) was apparently served and where the cast wound tightly around the spectators, who were thus both plunged into and made part of the action. Chavkin does wonders to create intimacy here, too--my respect for her has hardly been shaken by this. But I came away feeling that the nearly-1500 seat Imperial (late the home of Les Miz) couldn't quite handle the show it's housing. The result was emotional distance from characters who aren't terribly developed in the first place, in exchange for sensory overload that felt forced and exhausting.

1 comment:

Gary Negbaur said...

absolutely on the money.