'The Great Comet' swirls, swoops, and almost reaches perfection

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By Jil Picariello, ZEALnyc Theater Editor, December 1, 2016

Something is going on at the Imperial Theatre that requires a whole new vocabulary to describe. Splendificent might do. Or maybe intoxichanting. The something marveful is the rebirth of creator Dave Malloy's Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.

Adapted from a slender (by Tolstoyan standards) slice of War and Peace, the show was born at the teensy Ars Nova in 2012, went through adolescence at a custom-built tent in 2013, and has reached the full flower of its maturity at the aptly-named Imperial Theatre on West 45 Street.

Although the story seems complicated (and the opening number suggests you read the synopsis and family tree in your program), it really isn't. It's a tale as old as time: innocent young girl meets jaded cad, succumbs, ruins life. Natasha, played with shimmering charm by Denée Benton, is a sweet young noblewoman, recently engaged to Prince Andrey, who is now off fighting Napoleon. In his absence, she falls prey to the charms of a very bad boy, the handsome hedonist Anatole, who is married, but might as well not be.

The additional characters and complications include Anatole's skanky sister, the snake-like Hélène, who is married to Pierre, a wealthy nobleman looking for meaning in his life, and mostly finding it at the bottom of a bottle. Natasha's good-hearted cousin Sonia tries to save her from ruin. Her godmother Marya tries to protect her.

Got it? Good. Because the plot is really not all that important here. It's the framework around which a whirlwind of movement and music range--and range they do. The reconfiguring of the theater by the set designer Mimi Lien includes levels and catwalks, over and through which the large company dances, twirls, sings, and slides. Musicians are distributed in various corners, there are tiny tables with glowing golden lamps, red velvet draped walls, and sparkling brass chandeliers that evoke a nightclub in Brighton Beach. Sometimes you are watching a cabaret, sometimes you are part of it, eating your little warm pierogi and shaking your maraca egg.

The entirely sung-through piece is sprinkled with Slavic folk music, but the score includes heavenly ballads and more traditional pop-rock. It is all woven together brilliantly by director Rachel Chavkin, with gorgeous lighting by Bradley King and wonderful punk-czarist costumes by Paloma Young.

What kept me from dancing in the aisles as I left the theater is a matter of tone, not talent. The story is a tragedy, but you'd never know it from the first two hours of the two-and-a-half hour show. It's played as a rom-com, or maybe a Disney musical, with the foolish innocent young girl dazzled by the handsome prince. And, oh, that handsome prince! Lucas Steele plays Anatole as a Disney villain--sky-high pompadour, skin-tight pants, slinkily thrust hips, and a singing voice that soars and swoops. But this Anatole would have Tolstoy's corpse doing nearly as many flips as the Russian dancers. He's a sinner without a heart, a two-dimensional character that does not in any way speak to the self-loathing and emotional complexity of Anatole on the page.

I'm not claiming that a musical of a book--or any re-interpretation of a work of art--must cling slavishly to the original. But the last, deeper, darker portion of the show gives us a powerful taste of what could have been, and I wished that it had informed the rest of the production, instead of going for what felt like easy humor and facile irony.

But haven't I forgotten the most important thing about the show? At least marketing-wise? What about Josh Groban, making his big Broadway debut as Pierre? Sorry to disappoint (I wasn't), but Groban was ill the night I attended. His standby, Scott Stangland, who played the role in earlier incarnations, was wonderful, and brought depth and sorrow to the character that seemed missing from the show as a whole.

But my disappointments can be shelved in the box marked "Relatively Minor Quibbles." The Great Comet is creative, fully absorbing, and a damn fun night at the theater. I just wish I had cried as well as laughed.

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Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 at the Imperial Theatre, 252 West 45th Street for an open run. 2 hours and 40 minutes with one intermission. Music, lyrics, book, and orchestrations by Dave Malloy, adapted from War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy; directed by Rachel Chavkin; choreography by Sam Pinkleton; music supervision by Sonny Paladino; sets by Mimi Lien; costumes by Paloma Young; lighting by Bradley King.

Cast: Denée Benton (Natasha), Josh Groban (Pierre), Brittain Ashford (Sonya), Gelsey Bell (Mary/Opera Singer/Maidservant), Nicholas Belton (Andrey/Bolkonsky), Nick Choksi (Dolokhov), Amber Gray (Hélène), Grace McLean (Marya D.), Paul Pinto (Balaga/Servant/Opera Singer) and Lucas Steele (Anatole). Standby for Pierre: Scott Stangland.

Ensemble: Sumayya Ali, Courtney Bassett, Josh Canfield, Ken Clark, Erica Dorfler, Lulu Fall, Ashley Pérez Flanagan, Paloma Garcia-Lee, Nick Gaswirth, Alex Gibson, Billy Joe Kiessling, Mary Spencer Knapp, Reed Luplau, Brandt Martinez, Andrew Mayer, Azudi Onyejekwe, Pearl Rhein, Heath Saunders, Ani Taj, Cathryn Wake, Katrina Yaukey, Lauren Zakrin.

Cover: Lucas Steele and Denée Benton in 'Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812'; photo: Chad Batka.
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Jil Picariello ZEALnyc's Theater Editor writes frequently on theater and culture.

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