Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 (Imperial Theatre, New York)

Posted: May 30, 2017 in Theatre


A musical adaption of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace could be the stuff of nightmares, but, rest assured, this distillation lasts well under three hours. After we are informed repeatedly at the very beginning that “Andrey has gone to war”, the (Napoleonic) war plays little further part and what remains is a not too peaceful account of Natasha’s turbulent love life, Pierre’s seemingly inescapable depression and their finding redemption through each other as a comet appears in the sky to bless them.

Thank goodness for last year’s BBC adaptation, because, without it, I could have found the show’s narrative as unfathomable as the New Yorkers sitting around me who, to a man and woman, uttered “what is this all about?” at the interval. Even though the prologue is about as brilliant an example of character establishment as could be imagined, Dave Malloy’s book and lyrics never fully solve the problem of giving clarity to storylines extracted from a vast work, while, out of necessity, glossing over their context. The solution is not made easier to find when, except for a few words spoken by Pierre near the end, the show is entirely sung through.

Happily, my fault finding is now over. Malloy’s score, Russian and Broadway influenced, is varied and thrillingly modern. It demands to be heard again and again. And director Rachel Chavkin’s production, choreographed by Sam Pinkleton, is eye-popping, bringing about what is possibly the most radical transformation of a theatre for a musical since Starlight Express. Ah, let’s pause to give a nostalgic thought for the days when it was creators of British musical who could think outside the box and come up with shows as original and exciting as this. Lamps twinkle on tables placed between seats and what seems like a thousand more shine down like stars from all parts of the theatre. For spectacle, the show is literally an astronomical hit and it is performed not in front of the audience, but among us, the forlorn Pierre seated at a piano, half visible in a sunken position, a spectator to Natasha’s escapades.

Denée Benton’s delightful Natasha is carefree and foolish, falling for the no good Anatole in the absence of her betrothed, Andrey. Josh Groban’s bearded, bespectacled, corpulent Pierre is a sorrowful figure, ridiculed and tormented by an unfaithful wife, Hélène and lacking a sense of purpose; “Is this how I die” he asks himself in his key song Dust and Ashes and, as expected, Groban stops the show. This guy can sing a bit and act too. Lucas Steele’s Anatole and Amber Gray’s Hélène are over-the-top pantomime villains, making sure that, at least, we know who to hiss, but Brittain Ashford as Natasha’s faithful cousin Sonya brings tears to the eyes.

I would like to be proved wrong, but it is hard to imagine that …the Great Comet… has sufficient commercial appeal to be seen in London in this form and indeed it could struggle on Broadway after it loses its star casting. However, it is a bold and ambitious work that pushes the boundaries of musical theatre and I feel privileged to have seen it.

Performance date: 25 May 2017

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