What a world MacArthur “genius” Mimi Lien has created at the Imperial Theatre for Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet Of 1812. The auditorium is voluptuously draped in scarlet velvet, with gold and brass accents. Brilliant knockoffs of the crystal-and-gold chandeliers at the Metropolitan Opera House rise and fall like Fourth of July fireworks as stairways curve gracefully into the orchestra, where some seats have been replaced by candle-lit bistro tables suitable for nestling overpriced cocktails. Portraits of Important People, including the Emperor Napoleon, are stacked on the walls like art at the Louvre (or Sardi’s, take your pick).
The stage itself is populated with customers who in turn become part of the scenery and, occasionally, the action. The 10-member band is up there as well, not to mention an ensemble of 33 actors, making this one of the rare Broadway shows with more names below the title than above it. All of this, including Paloma Young’s infinite array of sumptuous
costumes, represents an upscale reiteration of the musical, based on some 70 pages from War And Peace, that first opened on the handkerchief-size stage of Ars Nova, a downtown developmental company, winning great acclaim. It later moved to much larger quarters in a tent, first downtown and later in the heart of the Theater District, where your ticket covered the show and a Russian-style meal: Immersive dinner theater. I can pretty much guarantee that no-one attending this gorgeous evocation of 19th-century Moscow will leave convinced they didn’t get their ruble’s worth.
Even if they have absolutely no idea what the heck was going on up there and all around them. Oh yes, the show. Well, it has something to do with a girl named Natasha (Denée Benton, in the role originated off-Broadway by Hamilton‘s Phillipa Soo) who flips for the swaggering roué Anatole (Lucas Steele) while her fiancée Andrey is off fighting Napoleon. Natasha and her earnest cousin Sonya (Brittain Ashford) are staying in town with Natasha’s society doyenne Marya D. (Grace McLean). Anatole is joined at the swiveled hip to his equally scampish sister Hélène (Amber Gray), who is married, but barely, to the philosopher depressive Pierre (Josh Groban, well-padded). Things end badly (c’mon, it’s a Russian novel), but not before Pierre is briefly energized by the sight of the Great Comet arcing across the sky.
Should you have any trouble following this, the Playbill helpfully includes not only a detailed synopsis (like the one you get at the opera) but a diagram with lines and arrows explaining all the relationships. And if that isn’t enough, there’s the book and score by Dave Malloy, which takes great pains to spell it all out for us, often to the exclusion of, oh, character development, motivation and feeling. Thus the “Prologue” warns us, tongue-in-cheek but not really, that it’s in the nature of this particular beast that everyone “has five names” and is introduced according to his or her main character trait. This also proves to be the guiding esthetic for the rest of the score as well, with songs explaining the action we’ve just witnessed or are about to see. And it’s still confusing, despite the visually impressive efforts of director Rachel Chavkin and choreographer Sam Pinkleton to divert us with broad swaths of movement, swirling dances and much displacing of those onstage viewers as they squeeze themselves into the audience to participate in the audience participation. (There’s no Russian-ish meal on offer, btw, just little boxes containing a teeny pierogie, that the cast tosses out at the beginning of the show.)
Malloy is an inventive composer of not very beautiful music. The best moments come when he reverts to conventional Broadway balladry, as with Sonya’s beautiful Act II “Sonya Alone” and (spoiler alert) “Natasha Very Ill.” Groban also gets to show off the voice that’s made him a best-selling pop star, with “Dust And Ashes” in Act I and his Act II duets with Anatole and, finally, Natasha. Which is a good thing, since Pierre — and, hence Groban — has almost nothing else to do in the show besides mope (which he does with aplomb, but still, he’s the star).
All this action — abetted by Bradley King’s spectacular lighting design, with more exquisite variations than a Disney animated film — delivers pleasure for the eye and, intermittently, the ear. But not for the soul. Not for a moment did I feel engaged with Natasha’s love issues or Pierre’s existential crisis. The show will become known as The Great Comet, and for good reason: That astral phenom is, in the end, more enchanting than all the glitter on the stage below.