It is supposed to be funny, the unseen, heavily accented, menacing Russian voice that warns theatergoers at the beginning of Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 not to leave their phones on or take photographs.
But this was the day after the presidential election, Broadway nerves were as frayed as everyone else’s, and a menacing Russian voice telling us what to do under threat of a dark and terrible punishment raised barely a ripple of laughter. But then warm sausage rolls were distributed in dinky little boxes to us all: happiness momentarily restored.
That isn’t the only unconventional conceit of Dave Malloy’s musical, based on a 70-page slice of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (Volume 2, Part 5), which was set between 1805 and 1812, and published in totality in 1869. Natasha and Pierre, which began life as a theatrical project in 2012, is truly the little musical that could.
Here, as in its earliest incarnation, the performers circulate around the audience from the get-go—and depending on where you sit, you may find yourself sitting opposite an actor revealing the secrets of their hearts as the performance continues. Not for nothing are we told at the outset to look at the character tree in our programs: It is a tangled web, as the first comical song emphasizes relentlessly.
The Imperial Theatre doesn’t look like a conventional theater. It feels, if you are sitting on stage, like a large bar with tables and chairs where action can suddenly break out in front or beside you.
A path weaves its way through from the back of the venue to way up to the back of the stage, and the actors and musicians jump, run, wander, dance, and carouse their way around spectators, on stairs, here, there, and everywhere.
Natasha and Pierre is immersive, and—should you be a soul sitting where the stage is traditionally—interactive as two characters get into it at your table. Or look at you as they ponder their flaws or romantic destinies. Part of the fun of the show is watching what spectators do when confronted by this: At the performance I attended, one sat smilingly rapt as the actor unloaded; another kept his eyes firmly down or looking another way.
Natasha and Pierre is fun, even if—for quite long stretches—its infectious, enveloping noise and bustle appear to be the sum of its parts. The title is as busy as the two-and-a-half hour production, which focuses on the perils in love as experienced by Natasha (the wonderful Denée Benton, in her Broadway debut). Her true love, stolid soldier Andrey (Nicholas Belton) is away fighting—and instead swings across her radar the swaggering cad Anatole (Lucas Steele). So who will she choose?
And then there is Pierre (Josh Groban, in his Broadway debut). Heavily bearded and clothed in musty tweed, Pierre seems sad, angry, and frustrated about everything: morals, manners, and the licentiousness and moral and spiritual decay of Moscow, as it swirls around him—although, from what we can see, this appears to be more jape-ish than criminally dissolute.
Other characters pop into welcome prominence in Rachel Chavkin’s feverishly paced production—like Hélène, Pierre’s manipulative wife, played with relish by Amber Gray, and the diva-ish and grand Marya D., Natasha’s godmother, played wonderfully by Grace McLean—but others are kept on a frustrating back burner.
Sonya (Brittain Ashford), Natasha’s cousin, and Mary (Gelsey Bell), daughter of crazy old Prince Bolkonsky (Belton again), Andrey’s sister and father, respectively, are too-fleeting presences in the greater love story. Belton as the infirm and eccentric prince is both funny and menacing. Sonya worries for her sister’s well-being, and Mary for her father—and both could do with more stage time.
As Anatole, Steele is caught uncomfortably halfway between being a villain and a figure of camp fun. It is unclear throughout if we are supposed to really dislike him for being a disreputable sexual aggressor or laugh along with that and his absurd vanity (he moves his face to achieve the perfect profile; he sings outrageously high notes, which the audience laughed at—but I think are also just extremely high notes).
If he is just an absurd figure, then Natasha’s choice becomes absurd. And that’s no choice, especially as Andrey himself is so absent.
There is so much comedy and energy in the show—whether we are bustling to the opera or freewheeling around Moscow—the shift feels too jarring when the stage of Natasha and Pierre shrinks and the action slows down, or we are asked suddenly to meditate on the nature of love and self.
The heart of the evening proves to be Benton, whose voice is so pure and presence so magnetic it weathers all the furious stage activity, plot shifts, and emotional pivots shunting around her. This includes the last romantic permutation of the musical itself, which is there in the title—and which seems more unfathomable than star-crossed when it suddenly takes shape. Similarly, Andrey is so un-present for most of the musical, the nature and destiny of the love between him and Natasha feels, fatally, a too investment-free.
These dramatic holes are more than offset by the beautiful look and vibrancy of the production: from Mimi Lien’s design to Paloma Young’s costumes to the appearance of that comet in the title, brainchild of Bradley King. The latter is a multi-bulbed specter of shimmering brilliance.
When letters are being passed between the characters, they are passed to us too. At one point, historical accuracy be damned, the theater is plunged into darkness and a laser dance party begins, with the characters and supporting players in specially designed luminous clothing, which means whoever’s doing luminous clothing for the stage is doing well this season, what with this and the similar garb of Falsettos.
However much you embrace this level of diversion and self-conscious stage-play will dictate how fast your heart beats for Natasha and Pierre. As well as being a visually and kinetically riotous lark, it wants to be something deeper—as it well might, being derived from War and Peace—and that is both its charm and, amid all the jostling colors and volume, its problem.
Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 is at the Imperial Theatre, 249 West 45th Street, until April 23, 2017. Book tickets here