So now we have “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1912,” transferred after a hiatus to Broadway and ensconced at the Imperial Theater, in a grandiose setting it does not really deserve. “Enthroned” might be nearer the mark, because Mimi Lien, the set designer, and Rachel Chavkin, the director, have redesigned the Imperial’s auditorium, so as to make the setting for a “War and Peace”-based show truly imperial.
But “Comet” the musical does not even equal other feeble new musicals. Yet for it, the fascinating seating now comprises various levels for action that partly respects the original seating, but also uses two aisles and two staircases, as well as the stage level for sideline bleachers and a lower free-floating one as well as an overhanging one--and even movement on the mezzanine--to achieve notable diversity. There is also impressive lighting design by Bradley King, involving an upstage bank of lights that can appear and disappear, and lighting units from above that are effectively lowerable and retractable.
The staging allows cast members to interact with the spectators in sundry ways, even unto briefly sitting down among them or having orchestra members ply some instruments up and down the aisles to cajole our adjacent ears.
Dave Malloy has inflicted on us his book, lyrics, music and orchestrations, as well as his obsession with things Russian. He also specializes in uncalled-for adaptations, having previously attacked Rachmaninoff’s Preludes, as well as Beowulf and Schubert’s “Winterreise,” while his Shakespearean “Henriad” is waiting in the wings. He is part of the Anglophone branch of Regietheater, in which a director or adapter craps on masterpieces that cry out for being left alone, as for instance in Simon Godwin’s disastrous current revival of “The Cherry Orchard.”
In the previous, outdoor version of “Comet,” Malloy also had the effrontery of playing the male lead, which made him a very unlucky Pierre. On Broadway, the role has gone, more commercially, to Josh Groban, who sings it much better, and even acts the part decently enough. But he is not the big, affable bear of a man the text calls for, despite some extra stuffing in his waistcoat.
Yet since this is supposed to be nothing less than a pop opera, let me begin with noting the arrogance of competing with Prokofiev’s marvelous nonpop opera, “War and Peace,” which, even unfinished, outshines a thousand Comets. Malloy’s music as well as instrumentation generate a vaguely Russian sound, but there is in it not a single memorable song. On the contrary, there are long stretches in which what passes for music sounds like a concert by assembled metronomes, not even worthy of an obbligato. Sometimes the human voice manages a Pyrrhic victory over mere sound and fury, but the accomplishment is the singer’s, not the song’s.
As for the lyrics, they are prosaic as can be and wallow in repetition of the same phrase countless self-indulgent times. Thus “There is a war going on/ out there somewhere/ and Andrey isn’t here, or “Helene is a slut” is repeated often enough, but never dramatically conveyed, to revulse even a besotted masochist. Rhyme is only slightly less rare than hen’s teeth—not that it helps much when allowed to interlope.
As for the book, there is little to recommend extracting a fragment from a long, major novel. It is doubly grievous, both for what is omitted and for what is not. For motivation, insight, and style, it remains on the level of a second-rate graphic novel: Tolstoy for Marvel Comics.
Which brings us to the casting. I have grave problems with the Natasha of Denee Benton, somewhat because she is black, but overwhelmingly because she is not much of an actress, and indeed has a babyish quality of looks, voice, and demeanor. Yes, Natasha is supposed to be guileless, but is she meant to be infantile? She sings well enough, but in a slightly black English accent that, for me, wrongly colors what she sings. Nicholas Belton, the Andrey (a Belton for a Benton?) has too slight a role, and his doubling in a wig as Prince Bolkonsky, his semidemented father, is horrendous ham.
I have already commented on Groban, but the rest of the cast surely deserves specific mention. They are all fine in various roles: Brittain Ashford, Amber Gray. Grace McLean, Gelsey Bell, Nick Choksi and Paul Pinto do well by their parts. But only one manages to be outstanding, largely because of the longest and most theatrical role: Lucas Steele as Anatole, the vile seducer. Pale, blond, and manifestly devious, with a touch of the showily histrionic, he steals the show no less than Natasha’s heart. His being easily the center of attraction skews what is already unbalanced into the barbarous.
As for the Great Comet of 1912, its greatness is limited to a rhetorical apostrophe in Pierre’s concluding lyric, no more distinguished than all that preceded it. I repeat, “War and Peace” is a remarkably wrongheaded source for a Procrustean adaptation, doing scant justice to Peace (a grand Imperial ball? Forget it!), and none whatsoever to War. I can see no excuse for the critical raves “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1912” has garnered from all over beyond perhaps some awe for its literary source. But to Tolstoy’s prose epic, “Comet” is like a children’s sleigh attached to a mighty troika.