So here’s something I didn’t expect to tick off my bucket list anytime soon: appearing on a Broadway stage. I refer to the fact that Richard and I, having shelled out extra money for the privilege, were seated right in the heart of the action for last night’s performance of Dave Malloy’s innovative new musical Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. Having begun several years ago as an immersive show in which the tiny Ars Nova off-Broadway space doubled as a 19th-century Moscow café/bar, it subsequently moved to a tent in the theatre district that, as I understand, only ramped up the blending of spectators and performers. The challenge, then, in moving to Broadway was how to retain the immersive feel of the show in an old-school proscenium theatre.
Director Rachel Chavkin and the entire design team have brilliantly met that challenge, and even surpassed it. Every part of the interior of the Imperial Theatre has been turned into a performance space, including the upper rows of the balcony, and with the centre orchestra seats bisected by a catwalk on which several of the actors and musicians parade. But it is the actual stage itself that has been most thoroughly transformed, with a row of raked banquettes at the back for some audience members to gaze upon the action—and their confrères out in what are now the cheap seats—from what would normally be upstage (or even backstage) space. And then there are the tables like the one at which Richard and I were seated that are scattered around the downstage circular thrust area, where many of the key numbers and much of the choreography takes place. At the centre of this area is Pierre’s study, which also doubles as this production’s version of the orchestra pit, with the pianist and orchestra leader, a bassist, a guitarist, and an occasional percussionist in full view of all. The rest of the stationary orchestra is scattered in different outposts about the stage, but the musical also makes use of an array of very mobile violinists and accordionists, some of them bowing and dancing and singing within steps of us and then, in a flash, dashing for the upper reaches of the balcony.
To be right in the centre of the action—and more than one of the ushers and a couple of the performers told us we had the prime table—was incredibly thrilling, and the experience of being so close to the performers that one could see the vibrations in their throats or the throbbing of the veins in their temples as they reached for the high notes is something that won’t be replicated anytime soon. That said, I can’t say that the music was especially memorable or the story distinguished in its telling. To be sure, if you’re adapting Leo Tolstoy—in this case, a subplot from one of the later chapters of War in Peace—you’ve got your work cut out for you. That said, the musical opts for an overly discursive presentation of the events surrounding Natasha (a compelling Denée Benton), who is betrothed to the soldier Andrey (Nicholas Belton), off fighting Napolean’s armies. Natasha, upon making her debut in Moscow promptly falls in love with the rakish Anatole (Lucas Steele, doing his best pouty pop star), who is the brother-in-law of Pierre (Scott Stagland, here substituting for the real life pop star Josh Groban). Pierre is a misanthropic man of letters in a loveless marriage to Hélène (Amber Gray) who rediscovers his humanity in coming to Natasha’s rescue when she realizes she has been ruined. As my plot summary suggests, the musical seems more concerned with laying out the connections between all the characters (self-reflexively highlighted in a coy opening number) than with adding any new depth to Tolstoy’s story of love, betrayal and redemption. Which is to say that while I loved the form that this musical took, in terms of content there is perhaps no improving on the original.