Susan Granger’s review of “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” (Imperial Theatre)
There has never been a more imaginative re-interpretation of an excerpt from Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” than this inventive electro-pop operetta which made its debut Off-Broadway at Ars Nova in 2012.
Written by composter Dave Malloy and directed by Rachel Chavkin, it’s become an eclectic, immersive theatrical experience that’s propelled by Josh Groban, making his Broadway debut.
Set just before Napoleon’s invasion, it revolves around Pierre (Groban), an unhappily married aristocrat. His diagrammed family tree is in the program. In their rousing “Prologue,” cast members urge you to read it in order to follow the complicated dramatic narrative.
Young Countess Natasha (Denee Benton) arrives in Moscow with her loving, protective cousin Sonya (Brittain Ashford) to stay with her god-mother Marya (Grace McLean), while her fiancée, Prince Andrey (Nicholas Belton) is away at the front.
Natasha’s initial meeting with Prince Andrey’s family goes badly. His spinster sister, Princess Mary (Gelsey Bell), notes that Natasha is “Too fashionably dressed, frivolous and vain,” while Natasha views Mary as “Too plain, affected, insolent and dry.”
Pierre’s scheming wife Helene (Amber Gray) flirts dangerously with Dolokhov (Nik Choksi), while her womanizing brother, Anatole (Lucas Steele), a callow cad, is determined to seduce lonely, impetuous Natasha, who doesn’t know he’s married. And so the decadent melodrama unfolds.
Wearing padding to increase his girth, along with a bushy beard, Josh Groban’s magnificent tenor resonates with melancholy, as he accompanies himself on the piano and accordion.
Also making her Broadway debut, Denee Benton has a lovely, lilting soprano. But Brittain Ashford’s soulful lamentations steal the show on more than one occasion.
The Imperial Theatre has been spectacularly reconfigured as an ornate cabaret by scenic designer Mimi Lien. Many audience members are seated onstage at tables and banquettes – with parquet runways for the actors in the orchestra and mezzanine. The walls are hung with gilt-framed Russian artwork and lush red velvet – with starburst chandeliers which lighting designer Bradley King uses to full advantage.
It’s a dazzling production, perhaps the most intoxicating musical since “Hamilton.”