- Chief New York Theatre Critic
“I never thought that I’d end up like this./I used to be better.” – Pierre
What is “The Great Comet?” The masterful musical, recently transferred to the Imperial Theatre on Broadway, seems to evoke disparate responses and critical interpretations. Some insist this is a complex musical requiring extensive knowledge of the French Invasion of Russia in 1812 and the ability to parse Leo Tolstoy’s 1869 “War and Peace.” Others dismiss Dave Malloy’s efforts as an extravagant and extraordinary musical of escapism and visual pleasure. Neither assessment could be further from an accurate appraisal of this groundbreaking new musical. Its importance lies in the audience’s simply paying attention to what is in the here and now in front of them, behind them, next to them, and above them: a remarkable story of love gone wrong, love redefined, and hope recaptured.
The remarkable cast “tells all” in the first few minutes on the musical. After he cast introduces and re-introduces one another in a “First Day of Christmas” style and provides a clear exposition about the role of each character, the ensemble cast surrounds the audience and reminds its members that what they are about to experience is “an opera.” If further help is needed there is more “in the program” to guide the way.
Simply put, “The Great Comet” is about a young man whose world has fallen apart and knows he needs to “do better.” Pierre’s plaintive cry resounds with authenticity not only for his condition, but resounds with a universal angst: “There’s a ringing in my head/There’s a sickness in the world/And everyone knows/But pretends that/they don’t see/“Oh, I’ll sort it out later”/But later never comes.” When he finally is needed by his dear friend Marya D. to resolve a problem, Pierre is inspired to change. Pierre’s deep ennui is surrounded by the drama all good opera provides.
In the case of “The Great Comet” this drama includes Natasha’s (Denee Benton) and Sonya’s (played with a stunning sensitivity and core of commitment by Brittain Ashford) visit to Natasha’s godmother Marya D. (played with just the right mix of disdain and genuine concern by Grace McLean) in Moscow while Natasha awaits her fiancé Andrey’s (played with a soulful countenance by Nicholas Belton) return from the battlefield. That drama continues with a disastrous visit to Natasha’s in-laws, and a visit to the Opera where she meets the rakish and “hot” Anatole (played with just the right of amorality by Lucas Steele) who steals her affection and derails her engagement.
There’s more to the plot of course but that is better left as a surprise. And there is the Opera scene, a decadent Club scene replete with an anachronism or two, and the elopement scene with the “trusted troika driver” Balaga (played with a broad raucous sprit by Paul Pinto) which defies description. But the core of the plot is Pierre’s conflict and its unfolding resolution and catharsis. And the power of the musical is its ability to connect significantly to the members of the audience and their conflicts and to the world at large. “The Great Comet” is one of the most innovative musicals to appear on Broadway for a very long time. Its uniqueness is surpassed only by its impressive cast.
Under Rachel Chavkin’s refined and imaginative direction, Denee Benton, Josh Groban and the ensemble cast grapple successfully with Dave Malloy’s music, lyrics, and book and create a delicious and innovative approach to a small slice of “War and Peace.” Ms. Benton delivers a convincing and engaging Natasha torn between loyalty and passion. She interprets each of her musical numbers with a stunning sensitivity and a rich interpretive craft. Mr. Groban excels in the role of Pierre gradually transforming his character from passivity to personal transformation. The multitalented Mr. Groban certainly knows how to sell a song. But he also knows how to act, play an instrument, and draw an audience into his sphere of authenticity and honesty. Mr. Groban’s “Duets” with Anatole, Andrey, and Natasha are compelling and exemplary of Mr. Malloy’s craft at writing music and lyrics.
Mimi Lien’s set design transforms the Imperial Theatre into an opera house with the audience seated both traditionally and on the stage, and in some cases, around cabaret tables. Her design allows the cast to interact with the audience throughout the performance. Paloma Young’s costume design blends traditional late nineteenth-century with anachronistic retro club garb. And Bradley King’s lighting design surrounds the action with lush tones of color.
The importance of Pierre’s quest for redemption connects deeply with America’s quest for redemption and the unburdening of its “scarlet letter.” “The Great Comet” could not be more timely and compellingly relevant. Counterpointing Pierre’s pursuit of reclamation is Sonya’s stolid support and defense of her cousin Natasha when she witnesses her near “fall from grace.” In her “Sonya Alone,” she sings, “I will stand in the dark for you/I will hold you back by force/I will stand here right outside your door/I won’t see you disgraced/I will protect your name and your heart/Because I miss my friend.”
With Pierre, the audience wonders, “Oh God, was there something that I missed?/Did I squander my divinity?/Was happiness within me the whole time?” Only time will tell whether we can maneuver our way through the current “wars” and find redemption and release. And with Sonya, the audience wonders whether we will avoid being disgraced and who – standing in the dark – will protect our name and our heart. Only time will tell.
NATASHA, PIERRE & THE GREAT COMET OF 1812
Led by John Groban (Pierre) and Denee Benton (Natasha), the cast of “The Great Comet” will include Brittain Ashford as Sonya,’ Gelsey Bell as ‘Princess Mary,’ Nicholas Belton as ‘Bolkonsky/Andrey,’ Nick Choksi as ‘Dolokhov,’ Amber Gray as ‘Helene,’ Grace McLean as ‘Marya D,’ Paul Pinto as ‘Balaga,’ Scott Stangland as ‘Pierre’ (standby), and Lucas Steele as ‘Anatole.’ The ensemble includes 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, and Lauren Zakrin.
“The Great Comet” features choreography by Sam Pinkleton, set design by Mimi Lien, costume design by Paloma Young, lighting design by Bradley King, sound design by Nicholas Pope, music supervision by Sonny Paladino, musical direction by Or Matias, casting by Stewart/Whitley, and production stage management by Karyn Meek. Production photos by Chad Batka.
Tickets for “The Great Comet” are on sale now and available via Telecharge.com or by visiting the Imperial Theater box office (249 West 45th Street). For groups of 15+, call 1-800-432-7780. Running time is 2 hours and 30 minutes including one 15-minute intermission.
Photo: Josh Groban and the cast of "The Great Comet." Credit: Chad Batka