Imagine adapting 1,225 pages into a musical.
Although Dave Malloy was brave enough to write the book, music and lyrics for a song-‘n’-dance version of Leo Tolstoy’s WAR AND PEACE, he eschewed the hubris to do the entire 15 books and its 365 chapters – and “merely” took on 70 pages.
He “merely” took on Book Eight and its 22 chapters.
And that’s more than enough to make for a full evening that Malloy has called NATASHA, PIERRE & THE GREAT COMET of 1812.
The Imperial Theatre now has a few hundred more seats than usual, for director Rachel Chavkin has taken an environmental approach with the material. So you may be seated on stage. Caveat emptor; you might get caressed by an overeager actor.
Even if you’re in a conventional orchestra seat, you could have an unconventional experience, for a few rows of seats have been removed and replaced by ramps on which actors cavort. They may well be inches away from you, close enough that you can easily see the anachronistic tattoos on their backs and arms. Best of all, when everyone encircles the inside of the Imperial and starts singing, you get the most sensational stereophonic sound.
Malloy’s music is occasionally anachronistic, too, for the early 19th century, but not enough to make the entire enterprise sound wrong. The show is actually a very pleasant experience, although Chavkin’s here-there-and-everywhere staging, imaginative as it is, doesn’t always make the story clear. On the surface, it may be enough to dazzle you for two-and-a-half hours, but if you’re the type of theatregoer who really likes to know what’s going on – and which of us doesn’t? — you may get lost very quickly.
So instead of a standard review, I’ll offer a primer and some mnemonic devices to help you keep the characters straight. Consider this one of those Reviews You Can Use.
We initially see Natasha with Sonya. They seem to be sisters, but they’re actually cousins. So remember the initials “N” and “S” for both “Natasha and Sonya” and “Not Sisters.” (Denée Benton is marvelous in the former role, and Brittain Ashford just as good in the latter.)
Actually, she’s Countess Natasha, if you please, and in love with Andrey, but he’s off fighting the War of 1812. (That’s not our War of 1812; Russia had one, too.) So will Andrey’s “absence make the heart grow fonder” or will this be a case of “out of sight, out of mind?” Or, to use their initials a mnemonically, will their love now be “N.A.” – “Not Applicable?”
To be fair, Natasha is discouraged after she meets two of her prospective in-laws. Yes, she’s a countess, but Bolkonsky’s a prince and his daughter Mary is a princess. Remember them by their initials “B” and “M,” for they treat Natasha as if she were a B.M.
(Gelsey Bell is a grounded Mary. Meanwhile, you’ll never guess that Nicholas Belton, who plays Bolkonsky, is the same actor assigned to Andrey. That’s versatility, folks. )
Their high-handedness might be one reason why Natasha is so smitten with Anatole when she spies him at the opera. Here’s that famous Love at First Sight thing again that so many musicals employ: just one look at someone’s looks and it’s magic.
God forbid that Tolstoy could have given the other lover a name with a different initial so we wouldn’t confuse Andrey with Anatole. You’ll just have to remember that alphabetically Anatole comes before Andre, and Anatole is now first in Natasha’s heart.
We don’t see why from the casting of Lucas Steele. Although the way he sings the words “St Petersburg” lets us glean why he was cast, he has punk-rock looks and Chavkin has him playing it as a see-through phony. We lose respect for Natasha when she sings to him, “Anatole, you are kind, noble and splendid” for we can’t find any of these characteristics.
Not so incidentally, he’s married, too. We start to feel better about him when he begins to sing to her “I am mah,” for we assume that he’s going to finish the word “married.” Nope: “I am mah-dly in love with you” is what he opts to say instead. He also adds “I’d do anything for you.” Does that include leaving his wife?
Speaking of similar names, in addition to Mary there’s a Marya D. The latter is Natasha’s landlady, so think of the “D” as “deedholder” (and try to ignore Grace McLean’s woefully over-the-top performance).
Anatole has a sister Helene who’s married to Pierre. Let their initials “H.P.” bring Hewlett-Packard to mind, for just as that company doesn’t quite exist anymore, Helene and Pierre’s marriage doesn’t quite, either, for Helene has been cavorting with Dolokov for a while now. Remember their initials, “H.D.” as in “high-definition,” which is where their romance is in comparison to Helene and Pierre’s, which is decidedly low-definition. (Not Amber Gray’s voice, however. Her delivery on “Charming” is far more than charming; it’s thrilling.)
Pierre has brought some of this on himself, because he’s made so very little happen with his life. You can remember this by recalling Pierre, South Dakota, where very little happens, too.
As you’ve undoubtedly heard, Pierre is played by young superstar Josh Groban. That Pierre participates in 10 songs may suggest that Groban dominates the action, but he solos in only three of them. One must wonder why this celebrity wanted to play this namby-pamby character who doesn’t even appear that often. It is NOT a star-making role and his comparatively little stage-time will woefully disappoint his rabid fans. They may not even recognize him, for he got no entrance applause. That said, his voice is most welcome, for it has pitch, power, superb diction and great beauty.
And “The Great Comet”? That’s not fiction; 1812 did see such a starburst in the sky for 260 days — a record that lasted nearly 200 years. After you see the show, you may well root for it to last substantially longer than 280 days.