Review: ‘The Great Comet’ goes better with Groban
By Jil Picariello, Theater Editor, January 24, 2017
Back in November, I charted the arrival of a new heavenly body on Broadway. Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, making the move from its off-Broadway tent to the Great White Way, lost nothing of its ability to enchant. The music, the staging, the performances, the warm potato pierogies…all of it came together in the most creative and enthralling way.
Based on a relatively small slice of Tolstoy’s famed War and Peace, the show tells the tale of innocent Natasha’s surrender to the charms of Moscow and the jaded cad Anatole. In case you’ve forgotten the novel (or never made it that far), Natasha is engaged to Andrey, who is off fighting Napoleon. Bad boy Anatole is the brother of wicked Hélène who herself is married to the searching, sad Pierre. It sounds complicated, although it’s really not, and to help follow the plot there’s both a synopsis in the program and an opening number, a prologue that introduces each character with a quick tag: “Balaga is fun, Bolkonsky is crazy, Mary is plain, Dolokhov is fierce, Hélène is a slut, Anatole is hot, Marya is old-school, Sonya is good, Natasha is young, and Andrey isn’t here.”
And then the song continues: “And what about Pierre? Dear, bewildered and awkward Pierre?” Yes, what about Pierre? When I saw the show in November, the star and main attraction, Josh Groban, making his big Broadway debut, was ill. His standby, Scott Stangland, who played the role in earlier off-Broadway incarnations, was wonderful, I thought, and brought a sense of depth and darkness to the character that seemed missing from the show as a whole. After all, Tolstoy did not write the book as a comedy, much less one with music. Intelligent, naïve, and awkward, Pierre is the author’s voice in the novel, and it is his search for meaning in a world riddled with greed, selfishness, and cruelty that drives much of the story.
Having now seen Josh Groban that he was born to play, you can file that complaint away. His rich tenor and expressive performance brings a moving melancholy to the role that highlights the pain of not just Pierre’s life, but the world he inhabits. He brings a balance and texture to the production as a whole that Stangland, as excellent as he was, did not deliver. With Groban filling the fat suit, I felt for Pierre, I suffered with him, and a show that made me laugh in November, now also made me cry.
The other effect of Groban’s participation is that Lucas Steele, as Anatole, shines just a tad less brightly, or maybe his glow is balanced by the light of Groban’s deeper performance. Steele is still near-perfection as the ultimate bad boy, a sort of anti-Prince Charming. But he isn’t the star now, Pierre is. And since Pierre’s name comes first in the title—and he provides the ballast for the pain as well as the beauty in the tale—this means a richer, more balanced, more moving piece as a whole.
The rest of the cast remains the same, and Denée Benton is still the picture of innocent charm as Natasha, Brittain Ashford as Sonya warmly expresses the pain of watching her dear friend and cousin throw her life away (her performance of “Sonya Alone” grows ever more moving), and Amber Gray makes Cruella de Vil look like Mother Teresa as the slinky, slimy Hélène.
The whirlwind of music and movement, all under the direction of the brilliant Rachel Chavkin, pulls you into the story in a reconfigured theater (set designer Mimi Lien has crafted the Moscow-meets-Brighten Beach cabaret with incredible skill) filled with levels and catwalks on which the cast jumps and twirls, sings and dances through and among the audience.
There are (my only complaint) far fewer pierogies and maraca eggs this time (I guess that the “audience giveaway” budget can only go so far). But who cares, really. Instead of a warm pierogi, you are warmed by the beauty and brilliance of the show. And instead of shaking your egg, you are shaken to your core.
I’ll trade a warm potato dumpling for that any day.
Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 at the Imperial Theatre, 252 West 45th Street for an open run. 2 hours and 40 minutes with one intermission. Music, lyrics, book, and orchestrations by Dave Malloy, adapted from War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy; directed by Rachel Chavkin; choreography by Sam Pinkleton; music supervision by Sonny Paladino; sets by Mimi Lien; costumes by Paloma Young; lighting by Bradley King.
Cast: Denée Benton (Natasha), Josh Groban (Pierre), Brittain Ashford (Sonya), Gelsey Bell (Mary/Opera Singer/Maidservant), Nicholas Belton (Andrey/Bolkonsky), Nick Choksi (Dolokhov), Amber Gray (Hélène), Grace McLean (Marya D.), Paul Pinto (Balaga/Servant/Opera Singer) and Lucas Steele (Anatole). Standby for Pierre: Scott Stangland.
Ensemble: Sumayya Ali, Courtney Bassett, Josh Canfield, Ken Clark, Erica Dorfler, Lulu Fall, Ashley Pérez Flanagan, Paloma Garcia-Lee, Nick Gaswirth, Alex Gibson, Billy Joe Kiessling, Mary Spencer Knapp, Reed Luplau, Brandt Martinez, Andrew Mayer, Azudi Onyejekwe, Pearl Rhein, Heath Saunders, Ani Taj, Cathryn Wake, Katrina Yaukey, Lauren Zakrin.
Cover: Josh Groban in ‘The Great Comet;’ photo: Chad Batka