Howard and Janet Kagan, Paul Marie Black
The American Repertory Theater
The Ars Nova Production of
Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812
Starring Denée Benton and Josh Groban
Music, Lyrics, Book, Orchestrations by Dave Malloy
Adapted from Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace
249 West 45th Street
Directed by Rachel Chavkin
Choreography by Sam Pinkleton
Music Supervision by Sonny Paladino
Brittain Ashford, Gelsey Bell, Nicholas Belton
Nick Choksi, Amber Gray, Grace MacLean,
Paul Pinto, Scott Stangland, Lucas Steele
And an ensemble of actors/singers/dancers
Scenic Design: Mimi Lien
Costume Design: Paloma Young
Lighting Design: Bradley King
Sound Design: Nicholas Pope
Hair & Wig Design: Leah J. Loukas
Musical Coordinator: John Miller
Technical Supervision: Hudson Theatrical Associates
General Management: Baseline Theatrical/Andy Jones
Press: Matt Ross Public Relations
Music Director: Or Matias
Company Manager: Roseanna Sharrow
Production Stage Manager: Karyn Meek
Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
December 3, 2016 Matinee
If only the recorded, rapturous, pre-show music, with its Russian-infused dance tempo and exotic tones, had been this show’s essential score, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 would have been magnetic. If only. Unfortunately, the orchestra’s music, conducted by Or Matias, was contemporary chamber opera, frequently atonal, with un-operatic lyrics including casual conversation. The show’s billed star, Josh Groban, is Pierre, who’s stuck in the thick forest of the adapted plot of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Mr. Groban’s bearded and paunchy Pierre thankfully can play the accordion and percussion and accompanies the musicians when he’s not acting center stage. Often he’s singing at and playing the elevated stage piano, but, throughout this all-too-long chamber opera, Pierre is overwhelmed with ennui. I’m not a ready-made fan of Mr. Groban, as this was only the second time I’d heard him sing, the first when he was the cameo guest in Oh Hello on Broadway. I’d love to see him in a streamlined musical, one with ravishing music or one specifically created to mesh with his impressive array of albums. Denée Benton, as Natasha, a character far from close to Pierre, is an artist to watch, with a stunning voice and warm stage presence. She’s ebulliently youthful and seemed radiant in the warm Russian Sputnik lights (that are obviously derived from the Met Opera’s chandeliers).
During the enchanting musical warmup, mentioned above, a voiceover sang to the audience that it should peruse the program to study the eleven lead characters, sketched in a “family tree”, paired with a five-part synopsis. The study of these two pages took me one-half hour, and that was long after viewing the show, as that voiceover was immediately followed by the first of two acts. This planning was another problem with the production, as several in my row kept whispering to each other about character confusion, and worse, a few used cell phone lights to try to see the “tree” in the program. But the production’s gestalt, with effusive energy, with actors moving about the onstage/offstage audience and including it in song skits and such, with red velvet curtained walls with gold-framed artwork, with dancing-walking planks through the orchestra and winding to the balcony, with tiny tables with electric-candle lights and little shades, and with actors throwing boxes of real pierogies into the crowds, was sumptuous and festive. The lead eleven characters are Pierre’s wife, Hélène (Amber Gray), Pierre’s old friend, Marya D., also Natasha’s godmother (Grace McLean), Pierre’s best friend, Andrey, Natasha’s fiancé (Nicholas Belton, who also plays Bolkonsky, Andrey’s father), Andre’s sister, Mary (Gelsey Bell), Hélène’s brother, Anatole (Lucas Steele), who beguiles and seduces the engaged Natasha, Anatole’s friend, Dolokhov (Nick Choksi), and, finally, Anatole and Dolokhov’s troika driver, Balaga (Paul Pinto).
In addition to the above cast, three of the actors double or triple in smaller roles, plus there’s an ensemble. Yes, one might think, operatic. But, the sound system, by Nicholas Pope is so over-miced, with pumped up electronics, piano, and percussion, that the lyrics bounced about the busy stage like the magic ball on old television singalongs. Dave Malloy might have kept his show on the smaller stage, Off-Broadway (Sorry I did not see it there), following its introductory run at Ars Nova. Within the Imperial Theatre, the cast of singers and dancers stood on the planks or at audience bistro tables, with cellos, accordion, guitar, even an English horn, and sang the tunes with spunk, a wonderful spectacle. But, spectacle is the operative word, as Mr. Malloy’s show is worth the ticket for the visual, surround-sound and surround-red-gold experience. As theater, however, the plot was presented so thinly, in between strobe lights and punching rhythms, it would be worthless to master the “family tree” and five-part synopsis.
Ms. Chavkin, director, has arranged such a busy stage, with two sets of audience riser-seating, musicians, actors, ensemble, chandeliers soaring and lowering, audience bistro tables, and the upright piano pit, that you need to be prepared for this dizzy whirlwind. Paloma Young, costume designer, mixed the attire for Anatole between hard rock and retro Russian. Leah Loukas, wig and hair design, also was carried away in Anatole’s spiked blond hair. He was far less than credibly seductive, and this character is the central seducer. Bradley King’s warm lighting at one point went into strobe lights, with blinding, blinking light. Sam Pinkleton’s choreography needed a stage with a few feet of empty space. Dancers were using the planks and spotlights, out of sight of some in the audience. If Mr. Malloy were to synthesize this show into five lead characters, or so, he could really develop the Tolstoy tale with joyous and angst-filled Russian musicality. Since this show seems to be doing well as is, drawing Mr. Groban’s fans, maybe another writer/composer or team could step up to War and Peace and focus on the historical, emotional core. Mimi Lien, however, deserves kudos for her exquisite set design. It was a feast for the eyes. Also riveting was the comet that finally appeared.
Josh Groban in "NATASHA, PIERRE & THE GREAT COMET OF 1812"
Courtesy of Chad Batka
Denée Benton in "NATASHA, PIERRE & THE GREAT COMET OF 1812"
Courtesy of Chad Batka