New York City Theater
"Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812"
The word for "Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812" is "dazzling" in almost every way. But that "almost" disclaimer is what makes the immersive electro-pop opera eventually a disappointment. It looks great, it sounds great, it's performed with spirit, directed with inventiveness and has sets, lights and costumes of the highest quality.
Yet this jack-in-the-box production lacks serious emotional involvement. Without that, it's a colorful, zippy condensation of a chapter in Tolstoy's "War and Peace" boiled down to a triangle of unequal sides.
Natasha is engaged to Andrey, who’s off somewhere battling Napoleon's invading forces. Left alone, Natasha comes under the spell of vain, two-timing cad Anatole. On the sidelines is the dissolute Pierre, a cynical drinker who, in trying to straighten out relationships, is instead awed by the individual's place in the cosmos. Pierre's story runs along parallel tracks to Natasha's, until a final fusing
With brilliantly insinuating music, lyrics, book and orchestrations by Dave Malloy, the accomplishment is astounding and, as directed by Rachel Chavkin and choreographed by Sam Pinkleton, the evening powers along. Tireless performers race about, up and down ramps, mingling with the audience, cracking asides, reacting to the principals' troubles.
This is a story of family, appearance, manners and wealth. While the war drags on, people at home dance, make love, drink vodka and carouse. Though the basic tale is serious and filled with crises, everyone's having a too grand, decadent time to care much. Only Pierre links the two worlds. "How long have I been sleeping?" he asks."This is how I died. How did I live? Was I kind enough and good enough? Did I love enough?"
Although Josh Groban was out the night the performance was caught, his standby, Scott Stangland, was a properly scruffy Pierre. He doesn't have Groban’s voice but his acting made Pierre into a man itching to leave a life he cannot leave. Denée Benton is a lovely, passionate, confused Natasha, with an exquisite voice, a yearning mien and an unforgettable stage presence.
Amber Gray is outstanding as the easily-tempted, fun-loving Hélène, Pierre's wife. Her big number, "Charming," is that and more. Lucas Steele is a properly narcissistic Anatole, Nicholas Belton an angry Andrey, with Brittain Ashford, Gelsey Bell and Grace McLean also worthy of praise.
No matter how accomplished all are, it’s Mimi Lien's transformation of the Imperial Theater into an imperial Russian nightclub that steals the spotlight. Along with Paloma Young's gorgeous period costumes, Bradley King' amazing pinpoint lighting and Nicholas Pope's articulate sound design, this may be the best looking show in ages.
But let's remember that beauty's but skin deep. For all its furbelows, so is "The Great Comet."
--David A. Rosenberg
Nov. 23, 2016