We lucked out and received theater tickets last night — one of those unexpected perks we New Yorkers sometimes joyfully encounter when friends unexpectedly have to forego their evening plans. It’s now intermission at the Imperial Theater on Broadway in Manhattan. The play is Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, based upon a portion of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. The musical stars singer/actor Josh Groban as Pierre in mid-life existential crisis, paired with a lovely rising young African American co-star, Denee Benton, as Natasha, an alluring young love interest.
Now by intermission I can say that this is shaping up to be a great show with a fantastic musical score that combines elements combining a Russian Pop and Bolshoi Opera production blended with postmodern urbanity. There’s the “street” rhythmic energy of Hip Hop’s cultural panache, captured with riveting precision and style similar to Lin Manuel Miranda’s block-buster Hamilton.
The Great Comet’s clever staging sets the entire Imperial Theater’s ambience as a night life cabaret soiree in 19th century Moscow. Embellished in period costumes of pre-Soviet-era Russian bourgeoisie life, dancers and instrumentalists festively romp throughout the entire theater, surrounding the audience’s 1000 seats in a uniquely entertaining manner, capped by a marathon of Vodka toasts and Cossack dancing.
This production is loaded with unanticipated active engagement of full audience participation, but not in a gratuitous pandering manner. The high-energy bombardment of the audience’s sensory field helps bring alive a ebullient pre-Bolshevik spirit of 19th-century Moscow’s elite social class with a bristling verve that seems to nearly burst at the seams at times. The merriment belies the story’s original backdrop of Napoleon’s French Brigades impending invasion.
The musical is anchored by the rich mercurial baritone of co-star Josh Groban as Pierre, an heir to a wealthy Count’s estate, who struggles with his existential crisis, reflecting on life’s meaning with the aid of an ample stock of Russian vodka. The Great Comet of 1812 appears, and through his struggles to pursue a righteous, meaningful life, Pierre, having been protector, patriarch, and bedrock of his family, discovers his love for Natasha.
Lovely and vibrant Ms. Benton’s Natasha, a dainty girl scarcely past puberty who is poised, refined, and impressionable. Betrayal by her lover, the carouser Anatole, leaves her forlorn and she’s eventually rejected by her fiancée, Andre, who discovers their affair.
Denee Benton is indeed well suited for the demands of the complex role of Natasha. Given the current tensions between Russia and the U.S.A over allegations of Russian sanctioned cyber-hacking of the U.S. 2016 presidential campaign, it’s a breath of fresh air to see classical Russian literature come to life on the “Great White Way” with a beautiful and talented African American actress.
The songs performed by the cast are powerful – some whimsical and joyful, others haunting. The music and lyrics explore the reaches of the interior lives of Tolstoy’s nuanced characters; conflict, joy, disappointment, rage, and aspirations – all qualities theater goers are privileged to experience via the adaptation of the great Russian writer’s 19th-century characters to our 21st-century sensibilities.
Some observers in 1812 viewed t Comet as an apocalyptic event signaling the end of the world, while others saw it as a symbol hope. During this current transformational period in Russian-American relations let’s hope that our nation’s love of art and the cultural appreciation of heritage in literature and music we share in common will steady our course towards a continued peaceful co-existence.
Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 is a theatrical experience that I highly recommend. (D.Day Media 2016)