Review: Comet of 1812 by: Jordan Diggory
Rating: Theatre: Imperial Theatre Show Runtime: 2 hrs. and 30 min.
If you’re exclusively into traditional musical theatre, you might not want to see Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 (hereafter Comet of 1812). You might think it’s not for you. You might think you’re not going to like it. But you should go see it. Comet of 1812 is a marvelous combination of everything that is fantastic and weird, yet bizarrely acceptable about musical theatre on Broadway.
The piece, based on a 70 page slice of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”, is a dense, complex spectacle fraught with genre blending, stylistic flip flopping, and genuine moments of humanity, comedy, and poignancy. The only cogent way to describe the tangled sonic and visual explosion of Comet of 1812 is to call it the lovechild of American Idiot and Waiting for Godot — if the baby was alternately raised in a luxury cruise liner smoking lounge and a 90’s rave in Soho.
‘It’s preposterous. It’s wild. It’s remarkably touching, and its themes of redemption, empathy, and enjoyment of life seem to fill a potentially hollow spot in our hearts.’
The story of Natasha, Pierre, and their compatriots twists and turns its way through Natasha’s engagement, Pierre’s inability to function as a member of society (dragged down by his lascivious wife and home-wrecking brother in law), and the momentary existential struggle of the aristocracy in Napoleonic Russia. It’s preposterous. It’s wild. It’s remarkably touching, and its themes of redemption, empathy, and enjoyment of life seem to fill a potentially hollow spot in our hearts.
Denée Benton is a stunning, naïve figure as Natasha, finding her way through the wiles and treason of Russian aristocracy, with a voice that alternates between classic musical theatre and contemporary sound (her rendition of “No One Else” is both moving and inspiring, a declaration of pure joy seldom found with such honesty). Josh Groban presents a marvelous third person view of the goings-on of the show, marshaling his mellifluous baritone to comment on the aristocracy and follies of the rest of the cast in a way that both separates him from his peers, and simultaneously demonstrates his inability to escape the bonds of expected social graces.
Lucas Steele provides a delightful comedic element as Anatole, the cocky youngster who steals Natasha’s heart. He is a master of arrogance, with a vocal range to rival Freddie Mercury; a true talent. The cast has no weak spots, each ensemble member brings excellently developed characters to the table rounding out the show’s fully fledged world presentation, and each principal inhabited their characters so fully, and with such commitment that it gives the entire performance a feeling of great significance. The depth of text, research, and rehearsal shows, and allows us, the audience, to fully drown ourselves in the words and music of librettist, lyricist, and composer Dave Malloy. This is not to say that the show is perfect. It is not. But it is very near to one of the most brilliant spectacle shows to hit Broadway and is certainly one of the top underdog picks in this cycle of shows on the Great White Way.
It would be irresponsible of me to ignore the technical aspect of Comet of 1812. It completes the piece. There are often shows that can be performed equally well in small spaces with minimal tech, or large spaces with millions of dollars worth of equipment (Next To Normal, Spelling Bee, and Spring Awakening are shows that fit this idea). Comet of 1812 relies heavily on its massive, moveable chandeliers, concert lighting, and individually lit tables that make up the Imperial Theatre for effect, but it is not to the detriment of the show or because of a lack of substance in the libretto.
‘This tiny break in the fourth wall eliminates the audience/performer divide, and while Comet of 1812 is not a truly immersive piece, it certainly attempts to harness all of the positive things that come from an interactive piece like Sleep No More or Then She Fell.’
I was lucky enough to briefly interview some of the performers after the show, and one told me (paraphrasing) that the themes of the show are so universal, and “War and Peace” is so dense, that it allows each performer to have their own individual opinion on the themes of both the book and show. Rather than dividing the cast, this allows them to come even closer together and create a wonderfully diverse and complex piece, rather than a uniformly cohesive presentation of one point of view. Bringing the audience into the fold by putting performers in the house, as well as directly lighting small tables interspersed among the seats, the audience is encouraged and allowed to form their own ideas about the performance and its message. This tiny break in the fourth wall eliminates the audience/performer divide, and while Comet of 1812 is not a truly immersive piece, it certainly attempts to harness all of the positive things that come from an interactive piece like Sleep No More or Then She Fell.
But what is the point of all this? Every theatregoer wants to leave the theatre feeling as though they’ve taken something away from the production, even if it’s just a smile. As Josh Groban put it, “if taking a 70 page slice of a book and presenting it in a new way can bring people to a wonderful work of literature, I’m happy”. In the same way, if a slightly wild, kinda weird, spectacular show can bring people to a world of theatre that is moderately outside their comfort zone, I’m happy.
Take a chance on Comet of 1812 if you’re a traditionalist, and if you’re a fan of non-traditional theatre, go see it. You’ll have a great time, and walk away from a wonderful performance by an incredibly talented cast of principals and ensemble members feeling great about where innovative musical theatre in this country is headed. Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 is a lot like the comet event itself: bright, flashy, brilliant, and we are unlikely to see anything like it again in our lifetime.
Show runtime: 2 hrs. and 30 min.
252 W. 45th St.
Credits: Book, music and lyrics by Dave Malloy; adapted from “War and Peace” by Leo Tolstoy; Directed by Rachel Chavkin
Josh Groban, Denée Benton, Dave Malloy (on select performances 5/4-6/27), Brittain Ashford, Gelsey Bell, Nicholas Belton, Nick Choksi, Amber Gray, Grace McLean, Paul Pinto, Scott Stangland, Lucas Steele, 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