Natasha, Pierre, & The Great Comet of 1812: Tolstoy Fizzling Before Impact
The set design is sumptuous (scenic design: Mimi Lien). One can’t ignore the beauty of the room when entering the reconfigured space of the Imperial Theatre. The background music is perfectly decadent, befitting the environment (sound design: Nicholas Pope). Audience and acting space are entwined throughout what normally is a traditional proscenium theatre. Wine, ‘champagne’, and vodka are served throughout the space. The cast is interspersed around us all, looking magnificently Russian in their dress (costume design: Paloma Young) imploring us to read up on the complicated plot in the Playbill. Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812, directed with a manic kinetic energy by Rachel Chavkin, is brought to us via a downtown theatrical experience formerly housed in a tent by The American Repertory Theater and ARS Nova. Dave Malloy (music, lyrics, book, and orchestrations) adapted this stage show from a small segment of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. But when the show begins, Malloy leads us by hand through the story in such a straightforward manner that reading the synopsis or studying the family tree is not required reading. In fact, I wish as much energy was given to creating an emotional arc in the story rather then plot points and explanations in a program.
The cast of professionals seem to be game, as they fling themselves up and down stairs, round and around the space, racing to get to their spot on time for a lighting cue (lighting design: Bradley King). They all sound magnificent and perform beautifully.
Josh Groban, the big named draw here, is wasted in a part verging on secondary. He is in fine voice and performs with ease as the drunken aristocrat Pierre, bored and disillusioned, but he is more of a friend to the action, then a part of the main story. Fans of his will feel slighted for the majority of the show, although he does have one beautifully emotional song, ‘Dust and Ashes’ mid way through Act One. This song is one of only a few, another being ‘Sonya Alone’ (sung with a unique charm by Brittain Ashford), that carries depth and love within the lyrics. The rest of the songs are far too simplistic and strangely descriptive of action and emotion, sometimes even sung in the third person (the music is quite lovely). There is something strange and disconcerting to have actors singing about their own movements around the stage in the third person. Descriptive language as lyrics, that reads more like stage direction, tend to be very distancing from a strong emotional core rather than engage us or make us lean in with our hearts and our minds. Stephen Sondheim, this is not. In a surprising twist, the set design concept of interspersing actors with audiences, which usually creates a more intimate experience, also tends to distance us from the characters as they seem to move more to utilize the space, rather than something organic or thoughtful (choreography by Sam Pinkleton).
The two main leads, Denee Benton as the young and naive Natasha, and Lucas Steele as the young roguish brother-in-law to Pierre, Anatole, valiantly try to drive this story forward through passionate renderings of forgettable songs. More often then not, this tragic story is played for laughs over tears, making Anatole foppish and haute rather than indulgent, self-entitled, and greedy. I felt for the well-voiced Steele being saddled with such a distracting directorial view.
Grace McLean as Natasha’s godmother, Marya D, and Amber Gray as Pierre’s decadent wife and similarly minded sister of Anatole, Helene, are more fortunate as their parts are treated with more seriousness and depth. Sadly, this fine group of actors is not given songwriting that approaches their expertise. I will say that it is a sumptuous show. Lively and entertaining. Moments of fun and pleasure delivered by an expert cast, but the combination of the simplistic lyrics and the manic movements created a show that is watched rather than engaged with. This show doesn’t run that deep.