Theater Review: Silly Tolstoy? Yes, at Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812

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That's a comet? Photo: Chad Batka

How can it be that a show based on the most serious novel of all time is both the most gorgeous new musical in town and, for much of its length, the silliest? That may be a self-answering question. Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, which opens on Broadway tonight, is so unlikely a mainstream entertainment that its creative team apparently felt compelled, while adapting it to ever larger venues since its 2012 Ars Nova debut, to conceal its essential nature in ever more effective disguises. As a result, it takes a very long time, if not forever, to register that the story, drawn from Part Two of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, is actually tragic, except when it’s merely philosophical and elegiac. You will hardly perceive through the pretty fog of Dave Malloy’s thrummy electropop score that Tolstoy’s view of his aristocratic characters and their petty romantic obsessions was scathing. Instead, you will be lulled and sometimes pelted into believing you are watching a smart-ass romantic comedy. Boxes of pierogies are thrown at you. Egg shakers are passed out so you can accompany a rollicking gypsy number. Drinking at your seat is strongly modeled and encouraged. (Little tables are provided.) If the tireless director, Rachel Chavkin, could have found a way to put pole dancers into the story, she would have. 

I say all this with both awe and revulsion. There may in fact be value in distraction at this moment in our history, and rarely has distraction looked as lovely. The scenic designer Mimi Lien’s nearly complete redesign of the aptly chosen Imperial Theatre begins as you enter its formerly pink-marble lobby, which is now a grubby underground bunker with fluorescent lights and post-Soviet punk-rock posters. By contrast, the main auditorium has been reconfigured as a Czarist wonderland, with brass and candlelight and onstage seating and stairways and catwalks and acres of red velvet swathing everything in a cardiac glow. Continuing the thematic use of anachronism, Paloma Young’s costumes combine Empire stylings and contemporary grunge to exquisite effect. The lighting by Bradley King is brilliant, colorful, alternating between tête-à-tête warmth and stadium-rock heroics. Even the expanded orchestrations, by Malloy, enhance the sensation of lushness and well-being; an oboe and a bass clarinet will do that. Russia under Alexander, even with Napoleon fast approaching, was a nice place to be rich.

If Natasha, Pierre used this gorgeousness to set up a contrast with the characters’ turpitude, or to bring its world crashing down at the end, it might seem less vapid. Instead, we are fed the story with every ironic overlay except a moral one. Natasha, a vivacious but generally modest young girl, is beguiled by the excitement of Moscow society while her fiancé, Prince Andrey, is off fighting. The handsome but scoundrelly Anatole, though married, sets out to seduce her with the help of his sister (and lover) Hélène. His plan is foiled by Natasha’s godmother, but the girl is ruined anyway; Andrei rejects her and Anatole leaves town. It’s true that Malloy, as I wrote in my review of the 2013 version that was performed in a tent beside the High Line, finally begins to respond to the seriousness of the narrative as it reaches its end with lyrics and music that are less coy and snarky. But the show has spent so much time selling itself as a hot comedy that the cool eye of Tolstoy prevailing over the denouement comes across as an aberration, not the main event.  

The confusion is built into the show’s title. What we see onstage is actually Natasha, Anatole & (Eventually) a Song About the Great Comet of 1812. Pierre is a minor character in the slice of the novel Malloy has chosen to dramatize: He is Hélène’s husband, Anatole’s brother-in-law, Andrey’s friend, Natasha’s confidant. That this observer has become a title character derives originally from the fact that Malloy wrote the part for himself; it remains the case because, for Broadway, the producers have engaged no less a singer than Josh Groban to play the role. The very good news is that Groban sings not just beautifully but without irony; almost alone among the cast, he makes real connections to the ideas behind the words and expresses those connections on the actual notes provided. (This is harder than it seems; most singers act with their bodies and faces instead of their music.) To the extent that Natasha, Pierre has improved on its earlier incarnations it is largely because the casting of Groban required Malloy to build up the part, and to the fact that Groban performs it, albeit half swallowed in a fat suit. (Everyone is made highly attractive except him.) Whenever he is singing, the show feels genuine; in the finale, it is almost even profound. 

But the rest is trompe l’oeil. I don’t mean that it is unenjoyable; I mean that it is improperly enjoyable. Lucas Steele, for instance, is ideal as the Anatole conceived here: a rock star in skintight pants and a cantilevered pompadour. But he’s not Tolstoy’s Anatole. He may sing perfectly and indicate the sadistic underpinnings of his character’s hedonism by means of an elaborate gestural vocabulary of comic poses and semaphores, but all this does is push us further away from any responsibility for the truth of his actions — which, in any event, are muddied by the production’s overall blurring of social norms. (The ensemble shows more skin than Tolstoy probably saw in his lifetime.) The same problem distorts our view of Natasha, who in Denée Benton’s performance goes from inertly good to just inert with no intermediate steps. (It’s not her fault; the steps aren’t provided.) All the other characters are likewise reduced to herky-jerky self-caricature, as if they were marionettes pulling their own strings. This isn’t helped by Malloy’s frequent gambit of having the characters sing their stage directions. “Pierre sniffed as he looked at her but he didn’t speak,” sings Pierre, which we would know without the description. When your source is Tolstoy that’s a stunning waste of storytelling bandwidth: Was there not enough to dramatize? Most of the time Malloy’s characters seem prompted by the need to sing something rather than by having things that must be sung. 

I don’t mean to make the ad Trumpiem argument that we cannot afford distraction or irony anymore. And sincerity is no cure-all. But the misalignment of source and style is so severe in Natasha, Pierre — and is now so exaggerated by its Broadway hyperinflation — that it seems like an example of elitist decadence rather than the condemnation of it that Tolstoy intended. Even a redemptive finale can’t fix that, and, anyway, do we believe in redemptive finales anymore? 

Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 is at the Imperial Theater.