Wednesday, November 23, 2016

"Natasha, Pierre, & The Great Comet" - A Supernova Lights Up The Broadway Sky

The artistic phenomenon that is "Natasha, Pierre, & The Great Comet" has had a wondrous peregrination across the entertainment firmament. The show is billed as The Ars Nova Production since this Broadway production began its journey at Ars Nova, moved to a tent in the Meatpacking District, and then to a tent erected on a vacant lot on West 45th Street just west of the Imperial Theatre that it now calls home. The next stage of its journey took it to the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, where it had a very successful run. I first became aware of the show when I saw it in Cambridge. I was thrilled and mesmerized and in awe that a story culled from a mere 70 pages of Tolstoy's masterpiece, "War and Peace" could be so full of action and meaning.

Much of that Cambridge cast has transferred to Broadway where it is now delighting audiences eight times a week at the transformed Imperial Theatre. In order to create an authentic Russian setting, the interior of the Imperial was gutted and reconfigured as a Russian cabaret. Musicians and actors surround audience members - on what was once the stage, in the orchestra section, and in the mezzanine. Mimi Lien's scenic design is bold and innovative and will be the talk of the town come Tony Award time.

The one major exception to the Cambridge cast transferring to Broadway is that Josh Groban, making his Broadway debut, was inserted into the role of Pierre. On the evening I attended the show last week, Mr. Groban was out sick, and his understudy, Scott Stangland, filled in very ably. Because of the absence of Mr. Groban in a key role, I have been invited to return to review the show during a performance after Mr. Groban's return. At that time, I will provide a more comprehensive review. I will offer preliminary comments now.

The show is a total delight for every sense. Hot out of the oven pierogies are served by cast members to the audience just as the show is about to begin. This act of Russian hospitality sends a message that the audience should be prepared to be involved in the action - with actors and musicians weaving their way through the aisles, passing letters to one another using audience members as couriers, sitting in the midst of the guests, and parading up and down staircase that lead to the mezzanine. It is very much a frenetic party atmosphere.

In the title role of Natasha, Broadway newcomer Denée Benton is a luminous revelation. The young Carnegie Mellon graduate is the epitome of grace and beauty as the princess who is engaged to Prince Andre Bolkonsky (Nicholas Belton). But Andrey is away at war fighting Napoleon. In Andrey's absence, handsome Anatole ( a wildly entertaining and preening Lucas Steele) comes along and sweeps Natasha off of her feet with his beauty and charisma. They plan to elope, but the plan is thwarted, and Natasha is disgraced.

Lucas Steele as Anatole
Denée Benton as Natasha
Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812
Photo by Chad Batka 

I have oversimplified a complex plot and cast of characters that includes a complicated constellation of siblings, spouses, cousins, lovers, advisers, and hangers on. Acknowledging the dizzying array of characters and names, the show begins with the rousing Prologue that is sung in the style of "The 12 Days of Christmas." Each character introduces himself or herself in song, so we have a clear idea from the start who are the dramatis personae. Each verse ends with the phrase: "And Andrey isn't here."

Other principals of note are Brittain Ashford as Sonya, Gelsey Bell as Mary, Nick Choksi as Dolokhov, Amber Gray as Helene, Grace McClean as Marya D, and Paul Pinto as Balaga.

The music and lyrics and book are by Dave Malloy, and they cover a variety of styles. Paloma Young has designed costumes that reflect the period and beautifully define each character. Lighting Design by Bradley King is spectacular throughout the show. It is my understanding that Sound Designer Nicholas Pope and his team have designed new technology to allow for free moment of the actors and musicians throughout the theatre, and the sound is impressive. When the cast sang the first ensemble piece, I felt as if I were immersed in a sea of sound.

Director Rachel Chavkin and Choreographer Sam Pinkleton have the troupe in constant motion, using every available corner of the theatre. The atmosphere is electric, and the cast members are clearly relishing their roles. This production is so good that I found myself occasionally distracted by counting up how many Tony nominations the show is likely to garner. I predict it was be a substantial number.

Stay tuned for more comments after I have had a chance to see Josh Groban portray the role of Pierre.



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