Josh Groban and Tolstoy Arrive on Broadway via The Great Comet

Josh Groban and Tolstoy Arrive on Broadway via The Great Comet

Denée Benton and Josh Groban in character as the title characters, Natasha and Pierre

“Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812” gives audiences two things the Great White Way desperately needed—an opera adapted from 70 specific pages of Leo Tolstoy’s Russian epic “War and Peace” and Josh Groban.

“The Great Comet” is not the kind of opera you likely have in mind. Instead, it is a boisterous mix of pop, indie, electronic and Russian klezmer music where the songs feel contemporary even though the show is set in the early 1800s (though keep an eye out for anachronistic partiers during an epic rave). Even if you’ve never read “War and Peace,” everything makes sense, I promise. As the cast performs the show’s opening number (“Prologue”), the audience is introduced to every major—and minor—character and his or her identifying trait. You see, Pierre’s wife Hélène is a slut, her brother Anatole is hot, Natasha is young and her fiancé Andrey isn’t here. Love is lost and found. There’s a duel. Josh Groban plays an accordion.

Yes, as Pierre, multi-platinum recording artist Groban plays the accordion, piano and percussion in addition to singing and acting. (Many cast members play instruments throughout the show, oftentimes while on the move.) With an academic background and prior experience in musical theater, it is really no surprise that Groban has finally come to Broadway, but there is the question of “Why now?” As he spoke during a preview of “The Great Comet” I attended at The Plaza back in March, Groban mentioned that he was interested in doing “The Great Comet” because this is a show he loves. As this musical transitioned toward Broadway, composer Dave Malloy (who played Pierre in earlier renditions of the show) further developed Pierre’s character and even added a new song for him. This post-duel aria (“Dust to Ashes”) fits Groban’s iconic vocals perfectly and gives this stodgy character a powerful moment of clarity near the end of Act I.

Amber Gray as Hélène during Off-Broadway run (©Broadway.com)


The entire cast shines and it’s thrilling to know that many of them have been with the show in its out of state, Off- and Off-Off Broadway runs. Amber Gray is a force as Hélène—her voice oozes with seduction. It’s always a pleasure seeing Nick Choksi ("Dolokov is fierce”) on stage. Grace McLean (“Marya is old-school”) delightfully chews the scenery in her sequences and delivers some great laugh-inducing one-liners. Lucas Steele is fantastic as Anatole. With his perfectly coifed platinum locks and dashing outfit (very reminiscent of a cocky young Han Solo from the original “Star Wars” trilogy mixed with Cinderella's Prince from "Into the Woods"), Steele masterfully balances the charm and selfishness of this attractive character. He’s a scoundrel and we really shouldn’t cheer for him… but he’s just so darn handsome. That’s part of the reason why Natasha (Denée Benton in her Broadway debut) gets caught is his web, so to speak—remember from the prologue, Anatole is hot.

Benton celebrates Natasha’s dynamic feelings and we fall in love with this naïve girl as she swoons for her fiancé (who is off at war) and the cute dude (Anatole) who “writes” her love letters just days after meeting her. The “Letters” song that starts Act II made me laugh out loud, as did many other moments in this show. “The Great Comet” is really quite clever and I love how the characters sometimes sing about their feelings in the third person point of view. The vocalization of facial expressions and internal monologue makes these characters more relatable and adds humor to some otherwise somber moments.

The venues where “The Great Comet” has run keep getting bigger—it started off at the 80-seat space at Ars Nova in Hell’s Kitchen in 2012 and has now found its home on Broadway at the Imperial Theatre (1100+ seats). However, the show’s intimate cast/audience relationship remains the same. Mimi Lien, MacArthur Grant-winning set designer, recreated the show’s 19th century Russian Salon setting that allows performers to move freely among—and interact with—audience members seated at café tables, as well as upholstered banquettes and chairs, that dot the stage. I was seated in the rear mezzanine and there were performers mere feet away from me throughout the show, dancing in the aisles.

This isn’t theater-in-the-round—it’s theater all around.

“The Great Comet” has the potential to do for “War and Peace” what “Hamilton” has done for American History—make it accessible and obsess-ible. With a killer soundtrack and Groban headlining an equally talented ensemble, “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812” is a must-see show that transcends traditional musical theater and gives audiences a fresh way to experience a nearly 150-year-old story.

Now in previews, “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812officially opens on November 14, 2016, at the Imperial Theatre (249 W. 45th St., btw Broadway & Eighth Ave.). Please note: there is heavy usage of strobe lights during part of the show.

Lucas Steele as Anatole during Off-Broadway run (©Broadway.com)

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