Review: Josh Groban can't save indulgent 'Natasha, Pierre'

MARK KENNEDY
Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — You may not just passively consume "Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812." You must participate.

As soon as you enter the Imperial Theatre on Broadway, you are urged to clear paths for the hectic performers, be prepared to catch boxes of pierogis — not enough for all, mind you — and learn some Russian history from the Playbill's helpful background briefer.

"Check out the family tree. It's very helpful if you haven't read 'War and Peace,'" counselled one ensemble member before the show started.

Got it. Let me cram in some homework before I get down to my expensive evening of entertainment.

Wait, wasn't storytelling something you were supposed to do, lady in underwear and a punk skirt who looks like you wandered off the "Lady Marmalade" video shoot? No matter, I'll comply. Anything to make this indulgent experience start on time.

The musical opened Monday and stars the excellent Josh Groban, wearing a fat suit no less, and the sublime Denee Benton. It's best for people who want to say they experienced a cool immersive experience on Broadway, but one without any heart. It's pure showmanship with none of the emotional payoff.

The musical, by Dave Malloy, dramatizes a 70-page melodrama at the center of Leo Tolstoy's "War and Peace" and centers on a bright young thing, Natasha, who falls for a far-away soldier, only to be seduced later by a flashier suitor. At the end of it, you may also feel similarly swindled.

The show, under the restless direction of Rachel Chavkin, reaches for an immersive experience by trying to erase the line between audience and performer. You may find yourself asked to pass along a letter, temporarily share a table with an actor or follow a melody with an egg shaker. There are strobe lights and actors racing about, as dance music competes with traditional Russian folk music.

Set designer Mimi Lien, who has won a MacArthur Foundation genius grant, proves herself very worthy of the honor by obliterating a Broadway proscenium theater and creating a multi-tiered human gymnasium, having ripped up seats to build little nightclub tables, staircases connecting the mezzanine to the balcony and raised walkways for the actors.

The sung-through musical premiered at New York City's Ars Nova in 2012 and went through various incarnations, including playing at the American Repertory Theater at Harvard University. It leans on its immersive roots because it lives in a cool, meta-musical space in which actors narrate their own actions.

But the addiction to descriptive passages grows weary and sometime seems just plain odd — "I throw my fur coat on my shoulders/Unable to find the sleeves," one character sings. The musical never finds a tonal sweet spot, ranging from the heart-wrenchingly un-ironic "I love him/I love him" to the almost mockingly helpful "In 19th century Russia, we write letters."

Some of the songs — there are a massive 27, though some are fragments — are super, but too many are weak and the whole thing needs editing. Landing on Broadway has done the opposite of what was needed. It got bigger without gaining any depth.

Now, brush up on your Tolstoy.

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Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits