From NYTimes.com, by Charles Isherwood:
The Imperial Theater, where the rapturous musical “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” blazed opened on Monday night, has never looked more imperial — or felt more intimate. Who would have guessed that Dave Malloy’s gorgeous pop opera, adapted from a slice of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” would land on Broadway with all its signal virtues intact, and in some ways heightened?
After all, it was born four years ago in the shoe box of Ars Nova, one of the most adventurous Off Broadway companies, before moving into a specially built cabaret-style space in the meatpacking district. I’ll cop to some trepidation about its arrival in a traditional proscenium theater.
Could the show, essentially a chamber opera with a small chorus, retain its emotional potency in a house that seats more than a thousand people? Would the immersive staging, including plentiful frisky interaction between performers and the audience, be jettisoned? Was the casting of the glossy pop star Josh Groban in the role of Pierre, a gloomy and none-too-dashing aristocrat, merely a cynical move to sell tickets?
Only moments into the show I breathed a happy sigh of relief. Under the astute eye of the director, Rachel Chavkin — one of the most gifted working today — the show remains a witty, inventive enchantment from rousing start to mournful finish. It is both the most innovative and the best new musical to open on Broadway since “Hamilton,” and an inspiring sign that the commercial theater can continue to make room for the new. (Heresy alert: I prefer this show to that one.)
Oh, and as for Mr. Groban, making his Broadway debut? He’s not merely adequate; he’s absolutely wonderful.
The musical shares with “Hamilton” a willingness to refract a historical period through a contemporary lens. Mr. Malloy, who wrote both the book and the score (and originally played Pierre), doesn’t shy away from using brash, slangy language and an eclectic array of music — including a burst of thundering electronica — to bring alive a love story set among Russian aristocrats of a distant era.
Consider the rambunctious opening number, which introduces the principals. Acknowledging the whiplash-inducing welter of characters, we are admonished thus:
This is all in your program
You are at the opera
Gonna have to study up a little bit
If you wanna keep with the plot
Cuz it’s a complicated Russian novel
Everyone’s got nine different names
So look it up in your program
We’d appreciate it, thanks a lot
While it’s true that the swirling romantic intrigues can be dizzying, Mr. Malloy has done such a fine job of distilling the essence of the story into song — there is virtually no dialogue, with the characters even singing descriptive narration (Natasha: “I blush happily”) — that you are not likely to spend much time peering at the program.
The lineaments of the central story are clear. Natasha, played by Denée Benton, also making a smashing Broadway debut, is engaged to the nobleman Andrey (Nicholas Belton), who is off soldiering in the Napoleonic wars. His curmudgeonly father (also Mr. Belton, although you’d never guess it) disapproves, and Andrey’s spinster sister Mary (Gelsey Bell) remains chilly, too.
Trouble looms when Natasha, dazzled by the heady whirl of Moscow society, falls prey to the charms of Anatole (the amusingly preening Lucas Steele), a womanizer who enlists his sister, Hélène (Amber Gray, glamorous and scheming), to help win her affections. Hélène is married to, but scarcely gives a hoot for, poor Pierre, who spends much of the musical bemoaning his unhappy life. (Mr. Groban also sometimes saws away at an accordion, or plays the piano, periodically taking over for Or Matias, the dynamic music director, who presides over an orchestra arrayed around the stage.) Pierre is a good friend of Andrey’s, and becomes drawn into the drama when things heat up between Anatole and Natasha.
O.K., so it’s a little dense, and I haven’t even mentioned Natasha’s cousin and confidante, Sonya (played by Brittain Ashford with moving delicacy). Or Anatole’s friend Dolokhov (the sexily menacing Nick Choksi), who stirs up trouble between Pierre and Hélène.
Even if you get lost for a bit, the dazzling staging, the vivid performances and the variety and richness of Mr. Malloy’s music will provide pleasures that go well beyond the narrative. Although much of it is inflected with Slavic folk music, the score ranges from soaring balladry that would not be out of place in a more traditional musical (like this theater’s previous tenant, “Les Misérables”), to songs that would not be out of place today at a rave in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Miraculously, Mr. Malloy manages to weave from the music’s myriad textures a cohesive tapestry.
The cozy rapport between audience and performers has been painstakingly maintained by Ms. Chavkin and the set designer, Mimi Lien. A fair portion of the audience is seated onstage. The action takes place not just up there but also on a parquet runway that snakes through the orchestra seating, and even in the mezzanine. The walls are draped in red velvet dappled with gilt-framed paintings, giving the impression that we are all guests sharing a sumptuous drawing room. Starburst chandeliers descend and rise. (The lighting, by Bradley King, and the half-period/half-punk costumes, by Paloma Young, are terrific.)
The golden vitality of Mr. Groban’s tenor was not a surprise. But he doesn’t just make pretty sounds; he invests his singing with the pain and frustration that define Pierre. With a bushy beard and a plumped-up costume (Pierre is described as “stout”), Mr. Groban is almost unrecognizable. And his acting is superb, as he all but trembles with the existential despair that courses through Pierre’s veins virtually nonstop.
Ms. Benton is likewise a revelation. Her soprano has a bright bloom, and she too brings Natasha’s inner turmoil — her love for Andrey, her insecurity, her vulnerability to the facile charms of Anatole — to moving life, so that in this case we are the ones trembling at her loss of innocence.
Where to sit, you may wonder. I went to see the show twice in two days, first sitting on a banquette onstage and returning to sit in the orchestra.
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For those who want to be closest to the action, the stage might be the place to be. For fans of Mr. Groban, perhaps the orchestra is the better choice. Then again, I had a friend who saw it from the mezzanine and felt he had an ideal view.
The answer really is, with a show this intoxicatingly good, there’s probably no such thing as a bum seat.