“You are at the opera, gonna have to study up a little bit if you wanna keep with the plot. ‘Cause 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!” These are actual lyrics from the opening number of Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, a new musical making its debut on Broadway after multiple out-of-town productions and a lengthy, successful Off-Broadway run. Based on volume 2, part 5 of the epic novel War and Peace, this unique, immersive, almost entirely sung-through musical that composer Dave Malloy refers to as an “electropop opera” does require you to pay attention. One page of the playbill does indeed feature a “family tree” of character relationships if you choose to read up beforehand, but if you pay attention to the exceptionally fun opening number you won’t even need it. Ever play the memory game as a child where everyone adds one word to the chain and you have to remember what everyone before you has said before making your own addition? That’s how the “Prologue” song works, and by the end of it you know that “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.” Got it yet?
For those unfamiliar with Tolstoy’s famous novel, this portion of the plot takes place, of course, in 1812 Moscow, just prior to Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. Over the course of two acts, you watch two parallel stories with many players in common unfold. The first is about Pierre (Josh Groban), who is unhappily married, frequently drunk, and in the midst of an existential crisis. Meanwhile, young Natasha (Denee Benton) is newly engaged and in the prime of her life. Naturally, when she arrives in Moscow to spend time with her godmother while waiting for her fiance to return home from the war, she finds all kinds of trouble, mostly in the form of Anatole (Lucas Steele), who, as we learned from the opening number, is hot and just full of bad ideas. Natasha makes a series of increasingly ill-advised, self-destructive decisions, Pierre recklessly searches for meaning in his life, and, notably, the two only share one scene in the entire musical, at the very end. If any of that sounds overwhelming, basically all you really need to know is that every male character in this show finds Natasha completely irresistible, and it causes a lot of drama.
The most impressive thing about this production is absolutely the atmosphere it creates. There is no traditional stage, and instead the action takes place throughout the theater and on smaller platforms connected by walkways in the front of the house. There are also many non-traditional seating options, and some audience members are at tables right in the middle of where the stage would typically be. Even sitting in the rear mezzanine, I still felt so involved in the action—the cast covers every corner of the theater, and you truly feel as if you are at the opera, in Moscow, and even at a Russian nightclub in one scene. Just prior to the start of the show the cast even tosses out small boxes filled with fried pierogis, and once again, the patrons in the cheap seats did not miss out. The sound design (Nicholas Pope) and lighting design (Bradley King) are stunning and work perfectly with the unconventional staging, directed by Rachel Chavkin. The Off-Broadway production took place in a pop-up tent, and the creative team has somehow managed to maintain that feeling even in a Broadway house.
I had no particularly strong feelings about Josh Groban prior to seeing The Great Comet, but found myself very impressed by both his gorgeous voice and his acting chops. The show also has a layer of distinct comedy underneath the tragedy, which the cast brought out skillfully. Also in her Broadway debut, Benton was just as lovely as Natasha, garnering plenty of sympathy for a character who could easily cross over into eye-roll territory. The rest of the large ensemble was also fantastic, maintaining the high-energy, party atmosphere throughout.
The Great Comet is a perfect example of a musical where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The plot and music are nothing extraordinary or groundbreaking (although I have been unable to stop thinking about the cleverness of that opening number in particular), and the characters are not particularly deep, something the show almost flaunts by reducing them all to a single adjective right off the bat. But the experience is so unique for a Broadway musical, and every single detail of the production design is so well thought out that it transcends any brush with mediocrity to become something very special. Much like the titular comet itself when Pierre at last encounters it, this musical is a captivating spectacle that pushes the limits of what a Broadway show can be in the best way possible.
Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 is currently playing on Broadway at the Imperial Theatre. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.