Based on an excerpt of Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace, Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 is inventive and energetic, an immersive spectacle of a show. Seeing The Great Comet is an experience. From the almost otherworldly and intimate design, which includes staircases enabling the cast to ascend to the mezzanine, making interaction with the audience at all levels of the theatre possible, to the interactive elements, which see cast members toss boxes of pierogis into the audience and hand out egg-shaped musical shakers to wave in time with the music, The Great Comet embraces its uniqueness.
Immersive theatre has been a growing trend of late, but in some cases it can seem forced or even cringe worthy. Not so with The Great Comet. Although the cast recording is wonderful, and has definitely been on repeat in my apartment this month, the design and immersive aspects are such an integral part of the show that it’s actually difficult to picture a stripped down concert version of the musical. The cast fully commit to their part in the performance, creating a euphoric atmosphere that the audience can’t help but get swept up in.
This genre-hopping musical, described by creator Dave Malloy as “an electropop opera”, is based on twenty-two chapters of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace covering Natasha Rostova’s affair with Anatole Kuragin while her finance Prince Andrey is away at the front. After a disastrous visit with her future in-laws, and missing Andrey, Natasha is pursued by the handsome and rakish Anatole, a conquest aided by Anatole’s sister Hélène. However, Hélène’s husband, Pierre who has been a friend of Natasha’s family for years, as well as Natasha’s closest friend, her cousin Sonya, decide to intervene.
Walking into the Imperial Theatre, I found it difficult to believe this was even the same place where I had seen Les Miserables only a year earlier. The stage has been extended and reconfigured into raised walkways around both pockets of musicians and audience members seated at cabaret-style tables. Even before the show begins, there is a lot to take in, such as the walls draped with red velvet and covered in pictures, and the stunning starburst chandeliers, suspended from the ceiling to create an effect that is nothing short of magical. The set and lighting design is complemented by the costumes (designed by Paloma Young), which range from the elegant nineteenth century period wear adorning the main characters to the steampunk-inspired costumes worn by the energetic ensemble and even glowstick covered ravers in one memorable scene. The design is exquisite, creating an aesthetic that belongs to Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 alone.
I absolutely loved watching Denee Benton. As Natasha, she conveys the character’s youth, as well as her vanity and desire to be liked. In the hands of a less capable actress, I think it would be easy to dismiss Natasha as flighty and foolish, but Benton is so damn charming, and her wide-eyed naivete so convincing, that I completely believed that everyone has always liked Natasha. Her soprano seems effortless, but packs a punch, and with multiple cast members (Oak, Amber Gray, and Grace Maclean in particular) opting for a grittier and sometimes growly approach to their characters, her clear tone was a particular delight.
One standout for me was Ashley Pérez Flanagan, the understudy for Sonya, who was on in the performance I watched. Admittedly I went in unfamiliar with the cast recording and not knowing who songwriter Ingrid Michaelson (playing the role of Sonya in a special engagement) was, so I didn’t realize Pérez Flanagan was on until the performance ended, but I thought she was absolutely lovely and performed a beautiful soulful solo on friendship in “Sonya Alone”.
Seeing the show only a week after the casting controversy that embroiled the Broadway community, I was most curious about Okieriete “Oak” Onaodowan as Pierre. Oak received an incredibly warm and well-deserved reception from the audience, including sustained and hearty applause following a moving rendition of “Dust and Ashes”. His Pierre was melancholic and self-pitying, and Onaodowan conveyed the character’s weariness with himself and with his life in a performance full of pathos. His voice may not be quite as clear as Josh Groban (who originated the role on Broadway and appears on the cast recording), it has more of an edge to it, but it’s strong, and suits the material extremely well. It’s a beautiful performance and I’m thrilled that I had the chance to see it.
Like everyone who sees this show, I also loved Lucas Steele as Anatole. The height of arrogance and vanity, his swagger is terrific and his tenor soars. This is really a show that highlights the entire cast though, and every actor, from the other featured roles to members of the ensemble, was enthusiastic and in the moment. It’s such an energetic show and must take so much to perform that I could envision a ‘The Great Comet Workout’ routine being a bit hit!
Although I loved my first (and sadly only) time visiting this eclectic take on nineteenth century Russia, I suspect Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 is the kind of show that grows on you and gets better with each viewing. It’s a visual feast with so much to take in, and so many different seating options for the audience, that I imagine theatre-goers could have an entirely different experience across multiple visits, and I am so disappointed that I will never get the chance to fully appreciate this wonderfully weird show from new vantage points.
It’s never easy for a less traditional show to find its way on the Great White Way, particularly given the casting kerfuffle that occurred last month, but I’m devastated that Broadway is losing this unique show, and encourage anyone who can to get themselves to the Imperial before September 3rd to bid Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 a bittersweet goodbye.