Josh Groban and Denée Benton in “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812,” now on Broadway. | CHAD BATKA
“Are you ready to wake up?” is the tagline for the awkwardly titled “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812,” inspired by a particularly juicy slice of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” involving a love quadrangle gone awry.
Indeed, this daring, dazzling musical (some might call it a pop-folk opera, as it is completely sung-through) works strenuously to wake up a 150-year old classic and, in turn, electrify fidgety theatergoers who’ve steered clear of the hefty novel, by employing some of the most inventive staging to rock Broadway in years.
Director Rachel Chavkin, in collaboration with Dave Malloy (libretto, music, lyrics), has exploded the standard proscenium stage format, comingling the action with the audience. In earlier incarnations – originating back in 2012 and nurtured by the boundary-busting Ars Nova theater group – this was easy because they built the space from the ground up, creating a supper club-style setting in tent-like structures on empty lots in the meatpacking and theater districts.
An immersive, head-spinning, Tolstoy-inspired tale of love, loss, and awakenings
Transferring the production to a Broadway house was a huge gamble (to the tune of $14 million); understandably, it had its naysayers. How could they replicate the delicate blend of actors, musicians, and audience in a large, traditional theater while retaining the unique vibe of the previous venues?
There should be no doubt, however, but that the transfer is a success. The 1,400-seat Imperial Theatre has been retooled into a giant cabaret-style space, with plenty of seating onstage at little tables, and catwalks and platforms throughout the house. Elegant staircases connect the stage to the mezzanine. The set, by Mimi Lien, evoking both a Russian manor and a music hall, is a sight to behold, made more magnificent by Bradley King’s lighting design, marked by huge chandeliers evoking the cosmos.
“The Great Comet” features a large, talented cast of 33, with a majority making their Broadway debuts. What a thrill to see the exuberant actors and musicians run rampant through the theater, nimbly executing Sam Pinkleton’s choreography, often brushing up against your knees as they whiz by. If you’re lucky, one of them might toss you a little box containing a fresh, flaky pierogi or an egg-shaped rattle so you can shake in time with the lively Russian-flavored pop score.
The plot is so complicated that the Playbill includes a handy synopsis with a diagram so you can keep track. The self-referential opening number pokes fun at this complexity, introducing characters with the repetitive simplicity of a child’s nursery rhyme. Andrey, a soldier off fighting in a war, “isn’t here.” Natasha, Andrey’s fiancée, “is young.” Anatole, who later seduces Natasha, “is hot.” Anatole’s sister and Pierre’s wife, Helene, is “a slut.” Pierre is “bewildered and awkward.” And so on.
And if you’re really lucky, you might have one of the leads plop down on a stool beside you. And what formidable leads they are.
Sporting a bushy beard and dweeby spectacles, Josh Groban, the classic pop singer with scant stage experience, is more than up to the task of portraying Pierre, a recluse stuck in a loveless marriage. If Groban seems slightly tentative in the highly demanding, pivotal role, his muscular yet silky baritone quickly makes us forget it. He learned to play the accordion just for the role and handles it with ease.
The “Are you ready to wake up?” query is directed as much to Pierre as to the theatergoer. The depressed, hard-drinking introvert is living on autopilot in a regimented Moscow society. Meeting Natasha reawakens his long-dormant lust for life.
Even more astounding is Denée Benton, whose portrait of the yearning, conflicted Natasha has a striking, bittersweet honesty. This gifted Broadway newcomer, who took over for Phillipa Soo from the Off-Broadway version (Soo left to play Eliza in “Hamilton” to much acclaim), is definitely one to watch.
As the cocky, philandering Anatole who “spends his money on women and wine,” Lucas Steele, reprising his Lortel Award-winning Off-Broadway role, is as dynamic as he is debonair. He has no trouble matching Groban’s vocals in both power and richness.
If the music and inventive staging aren’t enough to keep you awake, surely Paloma Young’s costumes will do the trick. The period ball gowns and military uniforms, minstrel garb and peasant frocks — all with anachronistic modern accents — are sexy and stunning. In this otherworldly domain of “The Great Comet,” even the slightest tendency toward postprandial snoozing has been banished.
NATASHA, PIERRE & THE GREAT COMET OF 1812 | The Imperial Theatre,249 W. 45th St. | Tue.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat.-Sun. at 2 p.m. | $47-$152 at greatcometbroadway.com | Two hrs., 30 mins., with intermission