Monday, November 14, 2016

Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812

Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 is a puzzle to me because the show is invigorating, original and evocative and, yet, also overbearing in its intensity. Based on 70 pages of Leo Tolstoy's second volume of War and Peace, the Off-Broadway transfer, which features the Broadway debuts of singer Josh Groban (Pierre) and Denée Benton (Natasha), offers a sometimes annoyingly frenetic, immersive experience that both irritates and captivates.

Audience members enter an opulent nightclub, dubbed Kazino, where the stage overtakes the Imperial Theatre, transforming it into a Slavic Studio 54, all red velvet and gilt. Two hundred individuals sit among the actors and orchestra on banquettes, armchairs and stools. The fourth wall disappears as characters occasionally involve the audience in the action. The astounding set (by Mimi Lien), which actually reduced the amount of available seating in the theater, brings even the last seats in the mezzanine into 19th century Russia, with a small square stage built amid the uppermost seats and cafe tables scattered throughout the area. Dozens of old-fashioned lightbulbs suspend from the ceiling, mixed among several chandeliers that look like clusters of stars (lighting design by Bradley King). Actors run up and down the aisles, playing music, dancing -- even handing out potato dumplings to the most enthusiastic applauders. With 22 ensemble members, the company numbers are colorful and exuberant but can over-stimulate (you'll see strobe warnings in the lobby); it's like a gypsy circus (with more leather, halters and tattoos) in constant motion--imagine Diane Paulus' Pippin on acid.

Comet tells the story of Natasha, an innocent girl engaged to Andrey, a prince who leaves to fight the war. When Natasha journeys to Moscow she meets Anatole (a sexy Lucas Steele), a married rogue, who convinces her to forsake her betrothed for him. Her elopement is stopped by her best friend, Sonya (Brittain Ashford), and Natasha, in her distress over her lover's betrayal and her reputation's ruin, tries to poison herself. Pierre (played capably by Groban) drinks his way through an identity crisis and a loveless marriage with Anatole's sister, who like her brother enjoys sleeping in many beds. A handful of other characters populates the melodrama; they ponder loneliness, old age and the loss of friendship. By the time the comet swoops in, all the lingering plot lines are coiled together and magically solved with one act of mercy and a song.

The electro pop opera-styled music and lyrics by Dave Malloy (who also did the book and orchestrations) are often clever and entertaining, but sometimes feature too much oversimplification and not enough emotion. The opening song, for instance, serves as a character primer detailing all the parts with one word monikers--Sonya is good, Natasha is young and Helene is a slut--because, after all, as the cast sings: "It's a complicated Russian novel. Everyone's got nine different names." If you missed the beginning, no worries: there's also a synopsis and a family tree in the program. Still, other numbers ("Sonya Alone," "Pierre & Natasha") provide heart-warming flashes. When Natasha sings "No One Else," the sweetness of Benton's voice glides through the song as twinkling bulbs overhead lower downward like slow-moving shooting stars, and a fluff of snow swirls around a faraway Andrey. The joy of Natasha compounded by the settings' stillness connects the audience to the character in a profound way.

Compressing the source material into such a small section takes much of the luminescence of the original work away -- even though Comet intends to take inspiration from War and Peace and not be it, the musical feels more Les Liaisons Dangereuses: Russian style than Tolstoy's war classic, with the only battles depicted on stage of love and betrayal. Groban, though, fares well in his debut with solid songs like "Dust and Ashes" and "The Great Comet of 1812" that suit his famous baritone. He's sympathetic as a man who's frozen inside, who wants to be more than he is--and his musicianship is obvious as he switches from accordion and piano player to singer. Ultimately, despite the show's flaws, director Rachel Chavkin deserves much credit for creating an experience that allows the audience to feel a show rather than just see it.

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