By Brian Scott Lipton
Appropriately enough, there are lights blazing everywhere at Broadway’s Imperial Theatre, where theatergoers can be enchanted nightly by Dave Malloy’s innovative musical Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 is a remarkably moving and highly spirited condensation of one section of Leo Tolstoy’s seminal novel War and Peace.
Physically, that statement is proven by the numerous gold chandeliers (not to mention other bulbs) that hang over every square inch of the theater, which has been reconfigured brilliantly by set designer Mimi Lien (with a special shout out to lighting designer Bradley King) to suit director Rachel Chavkin’s imaginative immersive concept staging of the piece. With part of the audience seated on the stage (and at hundreds of orchestra seats taken out, some replaced by a giant ramp), many viewers will literally be up close and personal with the large cast.
Which leads us to the sheer amount of blazing talent we are blessed to share our time with, led by the stunning Broadway newcomer Denee Benton, a superb singer and actress who is perfectly cast as the beautiful, dangerously naïve Russian countess Natasha Rostova, and pop heartthrob Josh Groban, bearded, padded, in glorious voice and with surprising acting chops to spare, as the soulful, unhappily married Pierre, who finally finds purpose in life through this young woman.
But that’s getting ahead of ourselves, as Pierre’s transformation comes at the very tail end of the story, which focuses mostly on Natasha’s ill-fated, ill-considered three-day love affair with the handsome, narcissistic, thoroughly amoral soldier Anatole (the excellent Lucas Steele). His seduction of Natasha causes her to heedlessly break off her engagement to longtime fiance Prince Andrey (Nicholas Belton), and to agree to a hasty elopement — which is only prevented by the actions of Natasha’s super-sensible cousin Sonya (a wonderful Brittain Ashford) and stern-but loving godmother Marya (the invaluable Grace McLean).
The story, by the way, is told entirely through song, and Malloy has an incredible facility to traverse genres, much as Lin-Manuel Miranda has done in Hamilton. And even if little seems appropriate for 19th-century Russia, that doesn’t make the score any less exceptional.
You’ll literally swoon at such plaintive ballads (or as the composer calls them “arias”) as Natasha’s “No One Else,” Sonya’s “Sonya Alone,” and, especially Groban’s breathtaking “Dust and Ashes” (the only song not to appear in the piece’s previous New York incarnations). However, Malloy’s greatest musical triumphs may be his witty, infectious numbers. Try not remembering the delicious “Charming,” sung by the salacious Helene (the fabulous Amber Gray) — who is Pierre’s unfaithful wife and Anatole’s scheming sister — to Natasha. I also adored such group numbers as the “Prologue,” which lays out how everyone in the story is related to everyone else, and the clever act-two opener, “Letters.”
In these songs, as well as the others throughout the show, the superb band (scattered in various locations) and cast (many of whom, including Groban, play instruments) lend exceptional musical support. You’ll also get a kick, at times, from Sam Pinkleton’s choreography, which smartly complements Chavkin’s staging.
It may be too early in the season to reasonably predict Tony Awards, but it’s impossible not to believe that Paloma Young’s gorgeous costumes, along with the work of Chavkin, Malloy, Lien and King won’t be up for the golden statuette in June. As should the show itself. Indeed, unlike most comets, this will not be a blink-or-you’ll miss it experience. The Great Comet of 1812 should hopefully light up the Imperial’s marquee for a long time to come.
Photos: Chad Batka