A most elaborate and tastefully glamorous musical has arrived in town to brighten the holiday season. That’s Natasha, Pierre and their sisters and their cousins and their aunts plus a few lovers, servants and a comet. Adapted from a small section of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, it has music, lyrics, book, and orchestrations by one Dave Malloy, who’s managed to win awards and grants from four or five highly-regarded organizations, based on the eleven other musicals he’s written. This is his first to reach Broadway, and it comes to us via Ars Nova, where it premiered in an off Broadway house before moving into a newly carved out space in the meat packing district.
Now it’s on view at the 1100 seat Imperial Theatre on Broadway, which it has transformed into a dazzling cabaret-theatre where the walls are fabric, adorned with dozens of portraits of early 19th century France. Ramps, a runway down the center of the orchestra that resembles the yellow brick road in Oz, staircases and endless chandeliers serve the eleven principals and the ensemble of two dozen. With appropriate fanfare and music making our audience entrance festive, the evening’s entertainment begins long before the first lines are spoken. The pre-opening moment brings the entire cast out to surround us on the various ramps, staircases, and elevated floors, even offering those of us to whom they are close, bits of pastry and candy to let us know we are to be part of the journey ahead.
What does follow is an opening number called “Prologue” which is a clever and useful introduction to eleven characters, whose lives are about to love, live and die. Under the mostly masterful direction of Rachel Chavkin, the stage on all its levels is vividly alive. Sam Pinkleton’s choreography is evident all evening as well, for this is a piece that uses virtually no dialogue. This most complicated love story will be sung and underscored; remarkably the sound design by Nicholas Pope and the clarity of the company’s fine voices, as well as the actors’ diction and projection keep us keenly in touch with the story.
Natasha (deliciously captured by Denée Benton) is engaged to Andrey (Nicholas Belton) who is off fighting in the Napoleonic wars. As Andrey is not going to appear for hours, Mr. Belton does remarkable double duty playing his very grumpy father, who firmly disapproves of this match. Andrey’s spinster sister Mary (Gelsey Bell) is against it too and is going to do all she can to prevent it. I’m not one who reveals plot in a review, but I can tell you that we are in store for lots of problems in the almost 3 hours it takes to spin this yarn. We will meet all sorts of folks living it up in Moscow society. Hélène and Anatole, brother and sister, (Amber Gray and Lucas Steele) are sexy and dangerous. Natasha has a cousin Sonya (a luminous and lovely performance by Brittain Ashford) who will have a lot to say (and sing) about some of Natasha’s choices. And there is more—and more.
There are forty musical numbers; some of them inventive, others that are melodic, and one that is second cousin to “L’Chaim” in Fiddler on the Roof. It has much to remind us of the Jerome Robbins staging of that showstopper, but Mr. Pinkleton and Ms. Chavkin have allowed their version to have at least 3 endings, thus denying the audience the release that applause would have brought to any one of the endings. Instead, they drift off with a brief bit of dialogue, and back we are into the story. Though I have the highest praise for the overall staging, and for the first-rate performances of all, in my opinion a good deal of pruning would have been useful and effective.
At this point I will say that the most recognizable name above the title is Josh Groban, but he was indisposed. “Pierre” was played by his standby (Scott Stangland) who had played it in its off/Broadway run. This is not a star vehicle musical, and Pierre, though a major character, is definitely a member of the ensemble as well. Mr. Stangland is excellent, and makes much of his aria in the first act, (“Dust and Ashes”) in which he sings of his regret at the flatness of his misled life.
The achievement of the creators, the splendor of the performances, the magnificence of the sets, costumes, and lighting (by Mimi Lien, Paloma Young, and Bradley King) make this a worthy and welcome addition to the young season.
I would like to have become more involved with the emotional underpinnings, but for me this was more a treat for the eyes and ears. Because we were asked to involve ourselves with so many characters, we never really got to know any one of them very deeply. The preening ways of Lucas Steele as the vain “Anatole,” the lovely innocence of Denée Benton’s “Natasha,” the specifics that Amber Gray brought to “Hélène,” and certainly the power of Mr. Stangland’s “Pierre” all brought more to the show than the words given them; I just think another polish would have turned this into a total triumph.
If you want to see an inventive musical, take the trip to Moscow and its high society, which is now in residence on West 45th Street at the Imperial.
Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 plays at the Imperial Theatre – 249 West 45th Street, in New York City. For tickets, visit the Imperial Theatre Box Office, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200, or purchase them online.