Thursday, March 2, 2017

Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812

Tolstoy's War & Peace is an obvious subject for a musical, right? This may be a loose adaptation, but Tolstoy's seminal work was the inspiration, nonetheless. I chose not to read much about the show before seeing it because I wanted to be surprised. I was expecting a classical, traditional piece of theatre. Consequently, I was shocked to hear a rock/folk opera. Dave Malloy's score is cerebral, evocative, and quite quirky. His lyrics mirror the Russian writing style in the sense that they take paragraphs to convey what other others could say in a sentence. The prologue is a highlight in the way it quickly introduces each primary character and their relationships to one another, repeatedly adding one new character for each round of the song. By the time the prologue finishes, we've heard about Andrey and Natasha on a loop, though the brooding Pierre remains a mystery until the final seconds.

Josh Groban as Pierre is clearly selling the tickets. Though I would have loved to hear his stellar voice more often, it's refreshing to see a major celebrity perform in a show without being the singular star. There was something very folksy about seeing him sit onstage playing the accordion while lesser-known performers stole the spotlight. His "Dust and Ashes," building from delicately pensive to raw and powerful is somewhat of an 11 o'clock number for act I. The majority of his work in act II  is upstage by the erratic Natasha and Anatole, though his duet with Natasha provides an emotional climax in the penultimate song. "The Great Comet of 1812" is another vehicle for Groban's pristine vocals, highlighted by the backing of sweeping choral arrangements.

Denee Benton's Natasha has a strong presence and she's downright effervescent with youthful hope and joy in act I. But when she falls for Anatole, you stop rooting for her. You see that she's shooting herself in the foot and as an observer, feel helpless to stop it. I shifted my allegiances to Sonya (Brittain Ashford) as she tries desperately to stop her friend Natasha from ruining her life in her Lilith Fair-esque solo "Sonya Alone". I felt about Benton's Natasha like I've felt about every Cosette I've ever seen in Les Miz. She has a beautiful voice, but she's not a fully developed character. She allows her entire future to be undone when Anatole (Lucas Steele) bats his eyelashes. Speaking of Steele, this is what it means to be a scene stealer. He verges on pushing his flamboyant Anatole over the top, but he never quite crosses the line. His portrayal stays grounded in the sense that all Anatole is really after is love, but he doesn't yet understand what that means and how his pursuits affect those around him.

Rachel Chavkin's direction is the true star of the show. I am a big fan of scrapping the traditional proscenium staging and Mimi Lien's scenic design completely reimagines the Imperial. With onstage banquets and tables, each seat in the house provides a completely different perspective on the action. If you are unnerved by being approached closely by actors, even in the mezzanine, steer clear of this show. The close proximity of the performers and the club-style design puts the audience in the middle of the party in 19th century Russia. This piece is provocative, so if you don't like your Russian theatre edgy, you should probably walk a block south and see Anastasia.

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