In “Poetics”, Aristotle called spectacle the least artistic element of tragedy. NATASHA, PIERRE & THE GREAT COMET OF 1812 turns Aristotle’s notion on its head at the Imperial Theatre. This visually dazzling, frenetic, swirling, non-stop circus of an electropop opera is so overpowering in its staging, costumes, design, it undermines plot and characters.
The first clue the story cannot stand on its own is before the show even starts when cast members cajole theatergoers to read the synopsis in their Playbills and study the accompanying family tree for the character’s interrelationships. At the same time, the cast distributes individual servings of Russian dumplings neatly presented in a tiny cardboard box with the production’s thumbnail logo. They don’t distribute vodka samples, although one can purchase that from a bar that is built into the setting. One wonders what Puccini - never mind Wagner - would make of all of it. Nowadays, it’s heralded as “immersive theater.”
Composer Dave Malloy fathered the project - book, music, lyrics and orchestrations - based on a slice of Volume 2 of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” For all its extravagance, ironically, THE GREAT COMET started life simply off-Broadway in 2012, finding its way to an elegantly designed tent on a vacant lot in the Broadway theatre district in 2014. The America Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, MA took it over the top in expanding that design concept to a proscenium theater earlier in 2015.
Under the direction of Rachel Chavkin and scenic design by Mimi Lien, The Imperial, a typical Broadway proscenium house, has been transformed into multi-level, quasi- theater-in- the- round, with amphitheatre-style seating on stage that connects to the mezzanine via ramps that ascend along the boxes. The orchestra too has a central runway connecting to the stage from the back of the house, and walkways branched to the side. Interspersed are small tables, with shaded, brass lamps. The wall surfaces for the entire interior are covered in thick, red velvet drapery on which are hung hundreds of gilt-framed pictures so as to create a grand salon or an uber-theatricalized version of the long-gone Russian Tea Room in Manhattan. Suspended from the ceiling are dozens of those multi-filament, star-burst lighting fixtures, a variant of the kind one would see in fancier diners in New Jersey in the 70s. The 12-piece orchestra is set in pits within different levels on the stage surrounded by audience seating.
Malloy’s sliver of Tolstoy’s opus has Natasha (played by a glowing Denee Benton), fiancé of Andrey away in the army fighting Napoleon, alone in Moscow befriended by Marya, a dear friend of Pierre (pop songwriter and vocalist Josh Groban) and best friend of Andrey. Natasha’s cousin, Sonya (Brittain Ashford), introduces her to polite relations but Helene (Amber Gray), Pierre’s decadent wife, shows her society’s wild side, where she meets and falls in love with Helene’s brother, the handsome, already-married, disreputable cad Anatole (Lucas Steele). This all leads to no good, with Pierre, a philosophical mensch, observing the proceedings with a dormant moral authority.
The zigzag plot isn’t easy to follow. The sung-through lyrics (often just talked-through with musical notes) skip in and out of all kinds of idioms. Many lyrics are plainly explicative (the characters often just tell us what they’re doing), but when they call for emotion, the singers, no matter how vocally skilled, seem disconnected. Groban gets beyond the vocal technics more effectively than most. So, too, does Ashford with “Sonya’s Aria” in Act II. Malloy’s score, while lively orchestrated, is melodically aloof, and of indiscernible motif, too.
The central plot and character problem with THE GREAT COMET is that the core conflict isn’t believable. Natasha is of such pure intent and intelligent purpose in her devotion to Andrey (she’s costumed in chaste, brilliant white), it’s simply not credible that she would risk her future with a louse as smug and conceited as Anatole.
But no matter, the razzle-dazzle shellacs all. More “immersive theater” appears for the seemingly endless “Belaga”, the most rambunctious number, in Act II when castanets in the form of small eggs are distributed so the audience can keep beat. Paloma Young’s eye-popping costumes, gorgeously detailed in pattern and texture evoke period dress of artistocrats, military and proletariat of the early 1800s with modern flair.
Choreography by Sam Pinkleton combines, at a dizzying pace, a smorgasbord of styles. Director Chavkin’s stage movement overall has the cast of nearly three dozen - plus the occasional walking musician integrated into Pinkleton’s complicated choreography – freewheeling up and down, over the entire theater, testing the skill of a traffic cop at rush hour. It’s impressive. It’s also at times distracting, repetitious and exhausting. Bradley King’s lighting design, executed with a staggering number of cues, on stage, in the audience, and on all surfaces of the Imperial is a tour de force.
Pierre’s witness of the tragedy that befalls Natasha and his best friend Andrey coincides with the great comet careening across the Moscow night sky, bringing him to an epiphany about the moral vagaries of our little selves and the infinite wonders of the grand universe. The orchestrations are big, and Groban sings beautifully. The comet he gazes at, the focus of his aria, is the largest of those starburst fixtures: as it descends lower, and gets brighter and brighter, his aria gets fuller and fuller, recalling similar spectacular dynamics of the finale of CATS when poor Grizabella is transported on the tire cum spacecraft to the Heaviside Layer.
Besides putting Aristotle’s theater principles backwards, THE GREAT COMET upends a famous marketing maxim, too. All sizzle, no steak.
POSTSCRIPT ON SEATING. If you want to be just inches away - literally - from the performers secure a seat adjacent to any of the walkways through the theater. Amphitheater seating on stage is prime, but to see how the traffic flows, mezzanine seats, even rear ones, are preferred to mid-section or certainly rear orchestra seats. Oddly, avoid the first four rows of the orchestra as you are in a gully the way the theater has been adapted. The side seats in these orchestra rows definitely have obstructed views to action near stage far left or far right.
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