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“Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812”

Imperial Theatre

 

For an unparalleled experience on Broadway right now, I doubt that you could do any better than to attend “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812” at the Imperial Theatre.  For anyone who is familiar with the inside of the Imperial Theatre, you can immediately see, when you enter, that the whole theatre has been redesigned, including where the audience sits.  Instead of a traditional proscenium house, there are walkways that go right out into the audience and often the actors are performing all around you.  It should be noted that “The Great Comet” has received productions Off-Broadway and in Massachusetts, but this is the first time that this adventurous show has come to Broadway.

The decision to come to a Broadway theatre has everything to do with the fact that superstar Josh Groban has agreed to star in the role of Pierre.  And lest one think that Groban is just a singer trying out Broadway for the first time, he happens to deliver an excellent performance, in addition to his wonderful singing.  Also making her Broadway debut is the exquisite Denee Benton, who makes a terrific and elegantly sung Natasha.

The majority of the rest of the cast has been with “The Great Comet” through its several productions and they are all outstanding, with most of them playing instruments, as well as essaying the various roles in the show.  I was lucky enough to have seen “The Great Comet” at the Imperial Theatre twice: once from the rear mezzanine and the second time from the front of the orchestra section.  It is highly recommended that you splurge and sit close for this show, for it is truly an amazing and immersive experience.

The super talented Dave Malloy is responsible for both the score and the book of “The Great Comet” and his work is quite unlike anything I have ever heard.  Malloy decided to take a section of “War and Peace” and musicalize it for the stage (there is an excellent, 2 CD cast recording available that was released when the show was playing its initial engagement Off-Broadway.)   Some of Malloy’s songs can sound a bit harsh on the ears, but his almost electro style of music suits the production of “The Great Comet” perfectly.

Also attached to this show since the beginning is director Rachel Chavkin, who has done a herculean job staging this show.  Perhaps because she has been with this project from its inception, Chavkin works hand in hand ideally with Malloy’s writing, and the fusion of their talents is pretty astonishing.  What’s more, scenic designer Mimi Lien deserves some kind of award for the work she has done in transforming the Imperial Theatre into Russia, circa 1812.  “The Great Comet” is one of the best looking shows I have ever seen and costume designer Paloma Young and lighting designer Bradley King’s contributions are also glorious.

As for the performances in this mostly through-sung show, special mention should be made to Josh Groban.  Without his willingness to star in this show, it is highly doubtful that “The Great Comet” would have ever made the leap to Broadway.  In a padded suit, Groban is not really giving a “star” turn: he works in perfect accordance with his fellow actors, all of them turning the show into something of an ensemble piece.  Still, Dave Malloy has written Groban a new song in the first act, called “Dust and Ashes,” that, both times I saw the production, stopped the show cold.

As Natasha, Denee Benton is simply stunning and sings some of the most ravishing music in the show.  Also standing out are Lucas Steele, Brittain Ashford, Amber Gray, and Nicholas Belton in other prominent roles.  But just about everyone in the company of the show is pretty wonderful, with the entire cast performing at the same high level.  As noted, it also helps that most of the actors have been with “The Great Comet” from the beginning.

“The Great Comet” can certainly be recommended as a heady piece of theatre and it would seem important to sit close for this musical to get the full effect.  (Sitting in the rear mezzanine, I felt somewhat detached from the show).  The fact that the Broadway gamble of bringing this unconventional musical to the Great White Way has turned into both an artistic and financial success is like icing on the cake.  “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812” (to go back to its full title) at the Imperial Theatre is something of a must, for I doubt that Broadway will ever see anything quite like this theatre experience again.

“Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812” continues at the Imperial Theatre on Broadway.  For tickets, please go to www.GreatCometBroadway.com or call Telecharge at 212-239-6200.

Photo: Josh Groban

Photo by Sara Krulwich

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