Wednesday 4 January 2017

Theatre Review: Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, Imperial Theatre, NYC

“No single English novel attains the universality of Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace,”
Encyclopedia Brittanica

Reading Leo Tolstoy’s 1869 War and Peace is a mammoth undertaking. The story of love, death and philosophy against the backdrop of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia sprawls across four volumes, encompassing nearly 600 characters, and you soon feel immersed in its detailed and vibrant world.

Josh Groban with the cast of The Great Comet
New Broadway musical, Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 (hereafter The Great Comet), achieves a similar feat, even with its much more limited scope. New York’s Imperial Theatre has been transformed from a traditional proscenium arch into an interactive space, with many spectators sat on the stage, gangways for the performers to cavort through the audience and red velvet hangings and paintings over the walls, allowing you to feel like you have really stepped into a nineteenth-century drawing room.

Dave Malloy’s play dramatises a few chapters of Tolstoy’s novel — the period just prior to the appearance of the comet, including Pierre’s duel and Natasha’s seduction and thwarted abduction. The focus is helpful in terms of improving accessibility (during the first song the chorus even tells you that you should be looking at your programme and consulting the family tree) and creating emotional payoff in a short space of time, although the production was most affecting for me during Pierre (Josh Groban)’s solos, which touched most explicitly on the novel’s broader existential themes.

Denee Benton and Brittain Ashford
There is little dialogue and the music ranges from traditional Russian tunes to old school Broadway ballads to rave and electronica, whatever will best convey the plot and mood, to which the play strives to be loyal. Many of the chorus members play instruments as they move through the crowd and Pierre often frequents the central orchestra pit, taking over at times from the musicians. Groban, along with Denee Benton’s Natasha, Brittain Ashford’s Sonya and Gelsey Bell’s Mary, really is the emotional heart of the drama, but the audience also responds well to the eccentric caricatures – mad Prince Bolonsky (Nicholas Belton), proud Muscovite matriarch Marya (Grace McLean) and ‘hot’ Anatole (Lucas Steele).

If you’re in NYC and up for a riotous night, The Great Comet is definitely a show to watch. Plus it might even help you bluff your way through a conversation about War and Peace

Do you know of any other shows you think the Secret Victorianist should see next? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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