On March 2, 2017, I saw Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812.
On March 3, 2017, I woke up still perplexed by the tour de force I witnessed… but maybe… in a good way?
Let me explain.
First of all, it is impossible to walk into the theatre and not get taken aback by the gorgeously designed set. Stairs, tables, and chairs intermix on the stage, walkways built into the orchestra, maroon velvet and portraits line the walls, and comet-inducing chandeliers hang from the ceiling. Along with the Tony Award Mimi Lien deserves for her scenic design, this set really ought to be preserved in a museum.
Sitting down in my orchestra seat, I looked on as a cast member poured vodka from one of the bars built into the set, and felt like a patron at a dinner club, or better yet a casino—where many things are going on at once, with infectious spirit, yet all competing for my attention. The lights dimmed and the show began, but this feeling didn’t leave as I consistently fought to understand: is what I’m seeing all that I’m going to get?
With high energy, the ensemble sings of a war going on and an Andrey, who apparently isn’t present, setting the focus while teasing that we’re at the Opera listening to a complicated Russian story. The prologue is a fun, necessary dive into the essence of each character, and the first look into the comedic thread that ties the show together.
Based on a passage of Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”, The Great Comet centers on Natasha, her engagement to Andrey (off at war), and her love affair with an aristocratic hedonist, Anatole (played by Lucas Steele). All of this taking place during the Napoleonic Wars, yet comfortably nestled in the glitz, glamour, and strobe lights of aristocratic Moscow.
And that, folks, is where the story lives. But hey, restraint in one area allows for extravagance in others?
Denée Benton makes an inspiring Broadway debut as Countess Natasha. Her voice matches her undeniable beauty, nimbly soaring over Dave Malloy’s chameleonic score, which shapeshifts from Russian folk, electronica, and pop rock to traditional musical theatre soliloquies and expressive arias—after all, we’re at the Opera, right?
It’s refreshing and important to see a Black woman with natural hair, trusted to play an ingénue, and one of Russian aristocracy at that; but more important is the fact that she does it so well. She’s young, she’s sweet, she’s funny, and she’s charming. She conducts and controls the emotional state of the audience with a look and with her smile, and because of this finesse, we stay by her side, bad decision after bad decision.
Image: Chad Batka
Music artist Josh Groban stars as Pierre and also celebrates his Broadway debut. He spends the majority of the time introspectively gazing at other characters from the stage, often playing the piano or accordion. But trust: when he opens his mouth to sing, it’s showtime.
He grounds the show in sincerity, providing an earthy depth and satin complexity to a man consumed in self-loathing and existential defeatism. We feel for him, and, in fact, I had more investment in his story—his call to wake up and lead a life full of love—and longed to see the desires described in the most memorable song of the show, “Dust and Ashes,” fulfilled.
Amber Gray, who’s been with the show since its first production at Ars Nova, equally commands attention as Hélène, Anatole’s sister (and possibly incestuous lover?), snatching our edges with a sensible belt and growl (go ahead and put “Charming” on repeat). We lean into Brittain Ashford’s (Sonya) sultry and affecting “Sonya Alone.”
Through the satire, eccentricity, and at times, strictly narrative third person book, Rachel Chavkin’s direction rises above, showing roots in wit, which brings out laughter at the best moments and empathy at the sincerest.
My heart fills with excitement because, this, to me, works as an ensemble piece—and the ensemble exudes joy with every strum of the guitar, bowing of the violin, high kick, and Slavic folk dance. The stamina needed to pull off a show of this magnitude is paramount and deserves applause. Comet’s magic, however, is in the celestial transcendence achieved when the room darkens, the chandeliers shimmer, and the ensemble surrounds us with both their presence and warm, angelic voices (ie: “The Great Comet of 1812” and “Dust and Ashes”).
Image: Chad Batka
More experience and performance than plot, I graciously acknowledge that The Great Comet of 1812 may be the most exciting, new, and innovative show you’ll see this season. It’s up to you to decide if you seek entertainment or if you seek a story.
The cast also currently features Grace McLean as Marya, Nick Choksi as Dolokhov, Nicholas Belton as Andrey/Bolkonsky, Gelsey Bell as Mary, and Paul Pinto as Balaga.
Sumayya Ali, Courtney Basset, Josh Canfield, Kennedy Caughell, Ken Clark, Erica Dorfler, Lulu Fall, Ashley Pérez Flanagan, Nick Gaswirth, Alex Gibson, Brad Giovanine, Billy Joe Kiessling, Mary Spencer Knapp, Blaine Alden Krauss, Reed Luplau, Brandt Martinez, Andrew Mayer, Mary Page Nance, Shoba Narayan, Azudi Onyejekwe, Pearl Rhein, Celia Mei Rubin, Heath Saunders, Ani Taj, Cathryn Wake, Katrina Yaukey, and Lauren Zakrin portray various ensemble roles.
Production has wrapped on a full Broadway cast recording. Groban, after several extensions, plays his final performance on July 2nd. Hamilton‘s Okieriete Onaodowan will step into the role of Pierre beginning July 3rd.
For tickets, follow the Great Comet.