If you’ve heard anything about Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, it’s that the musical, freshly boosted to Broadway after an award-winning run in alternative spaces, is a musical take on War and Peace. In reality, playwright-composer Dave Malloy’s glittering, frenzied, fourth-wall-smashing pop-opera is more like a piece of War — approximately 70 pages of Leo Tolstoy’s masterwork spun into two and a half hours of continuous song, stylish anachronisms, and meta winks at the source material. (Beginning with these helpful instructions from the aisle-stalking chorus: “Gonna have to study up a little bit if you wanna keep with the plot/‘Cause it’s a complicated Russian novel, everyone’s got nine different names/So look it up in your program/Everything will be clear.”)
They’ll even tell you what page to turn to in the Playbill, though it doesn’t really take a lit major to follow the bones of the story: Napoleon’s looming invasion and the burning of Moscow are mere place setting for Malloy’s vision, a sort of Young, Russian, and Restless starring a gorgeous multicultural cast whose rendering of Tolstoy’s mortal combat is almost entirely romantic: Love is the battlefield. As the first act opens, unhappy aristocrat Pierre (yes, that’s golden songbird Josh Groban under the corduroy padding and fleecy beard) is drowning his midlife ennui in philosophy and merlot, while Natasha Rostova (a luminous Denée Benton) spends the long winter waiting for the return of her fiancé Andrey. As long as Andrey is away on the front, she’s left to win over the stingy affections of her future in-laws, including the irascible Prince Bolkonsky (Nicholas Belton) and his prunish, disapproving daughter Mary (Gelsey Bell), and make her entrée into Moscow society with the help of her wily godmother Marya D. (Grace McLean).
Natasha is a sweet daisy of a girl, dressed in virginal white, but she’s young and susceptible too: Enter the peacocking rogue Anatole (Lucas Steele, a platinum-blond knife-blade who looks like he could have kept One Direction together singlehandedly). The fact that Anatole is already married is a small inconvenience; he wants to possess Natasha, and nyet is not in his vocabulary. The push-pull of their love affair, and Pierre’s parallel struggle to maintain his own marriage and his sanity, provide the framework, though plot seems nearly incidental to the spectacle of it all.
Off-Broadway, Natasha was an actual movable feast — a speakeasy-cabaret complete with Borscht and beef and an open bar. Here, the original dinner theater has necessarily been reduced to a bite-size potato peirogi passed out in a tiny welcome-to-the-show gift box, and the frequent toasting of shot-glass “vodka.” Instead, the focus turns to its immersive, interactive setting, where cast members, dressed like steampunk extras from Westworld in leather and silk and torn fishnets, weave through the multi-level seats — plying their instruments, plopping into laps, offering up tiny egg-shakers for audience accompaniment. (Come prepared to participate, and possibly lose a contact lens in the first act’s black-light flash-mob rave scene.)
The staging is remarkable considering all its moving parts, and the gifted young ensemble, often cycling at full tilt through multiple roles, earn every ounce of sweat and confetti. But the end result feels a little too much like zero-calorie entertainment (well, not counting the pierogi): brisk and sexy and emotionally weightless. The flow of the story never quite takes hold, and the stakes for these star-crossed lovers feel no more or less crucial then the next musical number tells us it is. (Malloy’s lyrics toggle between self-aware wit and straight-up exposition; the melodies themselves don’t tend to leave many chemtrails.)
And that comet? It’s a late player in the game, an elaborate art-deco-meets-disco stalactite biding its silent time over the center of the stage until the final moments. Like the play itself, it’s the promise of something old and something new, a flash of brightness that fades quickly but dazzles while it’s there. B