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Tolstoy Meets Cabaret – Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 – A Review

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I had meant to go see Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 off-Broadway some years back, and never got around to doing so, so I was rather excited to finally give it a go at the Imperial Theater. Having taken a recommendation from the kind gentleman who sold me the tickets at the box office a few weeks prior, I spent a little extra for on-stage seating, the idea being that if I was going to go to an immersive theatrical performance, I might was well go all in.

I’m quite glad I did, because I’ve never seen staging quite like this before—red velvet, beautiful chandeliers that rose and fell, actors and musicians popping up on a runway, and up in the mezzanine, and sometimes right next to us. The effect was overwhelming, as we found ourselves in aristocratic drawing rooms, a glittering opera house, a fancy dress ball, and some seedy nightclubs, with phenomenal music and lighting and flamboyant costumes and action in every direction.  The actors hand out pierogies early on and vodka is available at the bar (forewarned is forearmed, though…drinking at the theater is expensive).

We happened to be sitting next to one of the show’s producers and when I learned that, I asked her whether she was pleased with how it has made the transition to Broadway…she told me that she couldn’t have possibly been more pleased and that it had been done perfectly, and credited Mimi Lien, the set designer, with sheer genius. (As Ms. Lien is a MacArthur Foundation grant recipient, clearly she is not alone in that assessment.)

The show is witty and knowing and self-referential. At the very beginning, the chorus sings to us:

This is all in your program
You are at the opera
Gonna have to study up a little bit
If you wanna keep with the plot
Cuz it’s a complicated Russian novel
Everyone’s got nine different names
So look it up in your program
We’d appreciate it, thanks a lot

Complicated it certainly is, although it’s only an adaption of a brief portion (70 pages) of War and Peace. We’re introduced to the major characters, though, right away:

Balaga is fun; Bolkonsky is crazy; Mary is plain; Dolokhov is fierce; Hélène is a slut; Anatole is hot; Marya is old-school; Sonya is good; Natasha is young…and Andrey isn’t here…
And what about Pierre?
Dear, bewildered and awkward Pierre? What about Pierre?
Rich, unhappily married Pierre?

You get the picture, and if you don’t, it is, in fact, all spelled out in the program, with a synopsis and a family tree. But who has time to read the program when Denée Benton is on the stage? She is a luminous Natasha—it is hard to believe that this role is her Broadway debut, because she simply glows on stage. Natasha’s lovely, she’s innocent, she’s vulnerable, and she arrives in Moscow, away from her fiancé, to stay with her strict godmother…who can’t keep her from being introduced to the decadent Moscow society, and the charming and deceitful Anatole, who turns her head. My heart was just breaking for her as she approached both emotional devastation and social ruin.

Anatole’s played by Lucas Steele, who reminds me a bit of a young Val Kilmer (Think Top Secret, not Top Gun): he’s having a great time being a notorious rake and he’s tons of fun to watch. The good Sonya and the old-school Marva see right through him, but the audience understands just how the young Natasha doesn’t. Amber Gray is irresistible as Anatole’s wicked sister, Hélène (who married Pierre for his money and makes him miserable). She assists Anatole in his seduction of Natasha, and generally causes trouble all around. She’s also fun to watch.

And Josh Groban…it’s his Broadway debut too, and, well, I thought he was just great. He looks chubby and schlubby (he wears extra padding to play the overweight, heavy-drinking, unhappy Pierre) and has grown out his hair and a beard. His voice is rougher than usual, his gait is slower…he learned to play the accordion for the role, and also to dance (awkwardly, embarrassingly). The New York Times quoted Sam Pinkleton, the show’s choreographer, describing his climactic dancing scene: “It’s like when your slightly grumpy uncle has had a little too much to drink at the wedding, and gets the good idea to run onto the dance floor and show off his moves, which he might regret the next morning…It’s an unguarded animal expression of joy and community, and an unconscious celebration of being alive.” And it was a joy to watch Pierre finally cut loose.

The show ends with a lot of unfinished business…Pierre tries to save Natasha’s reputation and diffuse the scandal, sending Anatole out of town and unsuccessfully appealing to Andrey to forgive her. He experiences a moment of enlightenment when he sees the Great Comet of 1812, singing:

The comet said to portend
Untold horrors
And the end of the world
But for me
The comet brings no fear
No, I gaze joyfully
And this bright star
Having traced its parabola
With inexpressible speed
Through immeasurable space
Seems suddenly
To have stopped
Like an arrow piercing the earth
Stopped for me
It seems to me
That this comet
Feels me
Feels my softened and uplifted soul
And my newly melted heart
Now blossoming
Into a new life

And although we leave our hero and heroine without resolution, trapped in unhappy circumstances, there’s beauty and hope in Pierre’s moment of grace. It’s a transcendent moment for him, and it’s a transporting experience for the audience.

If you are in New York, go and see this dazzling show.  Josh Groban has extended his run in the title role through July 2nd.

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Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.

Laura can be contacted at laura@newswhistle.com

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PHOTO CREDIT

Lead-In Art Courtesy of Oleg Golovnev/Shutterstock.com – “Fire in Moscow 1812. Illustration by artist A.P. Apsit from Leo Tolstoy’s book ‘War and Peace,’ publisher Partnership Sytin, Moscow, Russia, 1914.”