Review: ‘Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812’ at the Imperial Theatre in NYC

A most elaborate and tastefully glamorous musical has arrived in town to brighten the holiday season. That’s Natasha, Pierre and their sisters and  their cousins and their aunts plus a few lovers, servants and a comet. Adapted from a small section of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, it has music, lyrics, book, and orchestrations by one Dave Malloy, who’s managed to win awards and grants from four or five highly-regarded organizations, based on the eleven other musicals he’s written. This is his first to reach Broadway, and it comes to us via Ars Nova, where it premiered in an off Broadway house before moving into a newly carved out space in the meat packing district.

Josh Groban as Pierre. Photo by Chad Batka.
Josh Groban as Pierre. Photo by Chad Batka.

Now it’s on view at the 1100 seat Imperial Theatre on Broadway, which it has transformed into a dazzling cabaret-theatre where the walls are fabric, adorned with dozens of portraits of early 19th century France. Ramps, a runway down the center of the orchestra that resembles the yellow brick road in Oz, staircases and endless chandeliers serve the eleven principals and the ensemble of two dozen. With appropriate fanfare and music making our audience entrance festive, the evening’s entertainment begins long before the first lines are spoken. The pre-opening moment brings the entire cast out to surround us on the various ramps, staircases, and elevated floors, even offering those of us to whom they are close, bits of pastry and candy to let us know we are to be part of the journey ahead.

What does follow is an opening number called “Prologue” which is a clever and useful introduction to eleven characters, whose lives are about to love, live and die. Under the mostly masterful direction of Rachel Chavkin, the stage on all its levels is vividly alive. Sam Pinkleton’s choreography is evident all evening as well, for this is  a piece that uses virtually no dialogue. This most complicated love story will be sung and underscored;  remarkably the sound design by Nicholas Pope and the clarity of the company’s fine voices, as well as  the actors’ diction and projection keep us keenly in touch with the story.

Natasha (deliciously captured by Denée Benton) is engaged to Andrey (Nicholas Belton) who is off fighting in the Napoleonic wars. As Andrey is not going to appear for hours, Mr. Belton does remarkable double duty playing his very grumpy father, who firmly disapproves of this match. Andrey’s spinster sister Mary (Gelsey Bell)  is against it  too and is going to do all she can to prevent it. I’m not one who reveals plot in a review, but I can tell you that we are in store for lots of problems in the almost 3 hours it takes to spin this yarn. We will meet all sorts of folks living it up in Moscow society. Hélène and Anatole, brother and sister, (Amber Gray and Lucas Steele) are sexy and dangerous. Natasha has a cousin Sonya (a luminous and lovely performance by Brittain Ashford) who will have a lot to say (and sing) about some of Natasha’s choices. And there is more—and more.

Lucas Steele (Anatole) and Denee Benton (Natasha). Photo by Chad Batka.
Lucas Steele (Anatole) and Denee Benton (Natasha). Photo by Chad Batka.

There are forty musical numbers; some of them inventive, others that are melodic, and one that is second cousin to “L’Chaim” in Fiddler on the Roof. It has much to remind us of the Jerome Robbins staging of that showstopper, but Mr. Pinkleton and Ms. Chavkin have allowed their version to have at least 3 endings, thus denying the audience the release that applause would have brought to any one of the endings. Instead, they drift off with a brief bit of dialogue, and back we are into the story. Though I have the highest praise for the overall staging, and for the first-rate performances of all, in my opinion a good deal of pruning would have been useful and effective.

At this point I will say that the most recognizable name above the title is Josh Groban, but he was indisposed. “Pierre” was played by his standby (Scott Stangland) who had played it in its off/Broadway run. This is not a star vehicle musical, and Pierre, though a major character, is definitely a member of the ensemble as well. Mr. Stangland is excellent, and makes much of his aria in the first act, (“Dust and Ashes”) in which he sings of his regret at the flatness of his misled life.

The achievement of the creators, the splendor of the performances, the magnificence of the sets, costumes, and lighting (by Mimi Lien, Paloma Young, and Bradley King) make this a worthy and welcome addition to the young season.

I would like to have become more involved with the emotional underpinnings, but for me this was more a treat for the eyes and ears. Because we were asked to involve ourselves  with so many characters, we never really got to know any one of them very deeply. The preening ways of Lucas Steele as the vain “Anatole,” the lovely innocence of Denée Benton’s “Natasha,” the specifics that Amber Gray brought to “Hélène,” and certainly the power of Mr. Stangland’s “Pierre” all brought more to the show than the words given them; I  just think another polish would have turned this into a total triumph.

If you want to see an inventive musical, take the trip to Moscow and its high society, which is now in residence on West 45th Street at the Imperial.

Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 plays at the Imperial Theatre – 249 West 45th Street, in New York City. For tickets, visit the Imperial Theatre Box Office, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200, or purchase them online.

Previous articleReview: ‘The Wizard of Oz’ at Walnut Street Theatre
Next articleMagic Time! ‘Straight White Men’ at The Studio Theatre
Richard Seff
RICHARD SEFF has been working in theatre since he made his acting debut in support of Claude Rains in the prize winning DARKNESS AT NOON, and he agreed to tour the next season in support of Edward G. Robinson, which took him across the nation and back for nine months. When it was over and he was immediately offered another national tour with THE SHRIKE with Van Heflin, he decided to explore other areas, and he spent the next 22 years representing artists in the theatre as an agent, where he worked at Liebling-Wood, MCA, eventually a partnership of his own called Hesseltine-Bookman and Seff, where he discovered and developed young talents like Chita Rivera, John Kander, Fred Ebb, Ron Field, Linda Lavin, Nancy Dussault and many others. He ultimately sold his interest to ICM. When he completed his contractual obligation to that international agency, he returned to his first love, acting and writing for the theatre. In that phase of his long and varied life, he wrote a comedy (PARIS IS OUT!) which brightened the 1970 season on Broadway for 107 performances. He became a successful supporting player in film, tv and onstage, and ultimately wrote a book about his journey, SUPPORTING PLAYER: MY LIFE UPON THE WICKED STAGE, still popular with older theatre lovers and youngsters who may not yet know exactly where they will most sensibly and profitably fit into the world of show business. The book chronicles a life of joyous work working in a favored profession in many areas, including leading roles in the regional theatres in his work in Lanford Wilson's ANGELS FALL. His last stage role was in THE COUNTESS in which he played Mr. Ruskin for 9 months off Broadway. Five seasons ago Joel Markowitz suggested he join him at DCTheatreScene. His accurate and readable reviews of the New York Scene led, when the time was right, for his joining DCMetroTheaterArts to continue bringing news of the Big Apple's productions just to keep you posted. He is delighted to be able to join DCMTA and work with Joel and hopes that you like what he has to say.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here