‘Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812’ Broadway Review: Josh Groban Makes Epic Debut

Director Rachel Chavkin works irreverent Bob Fosse-like magic in musical version of “War and Peace”

natasha pierre and the great comet of 1812 josh groban
Photo: Chad Batka

The triple threat is rare in the theater, and for good reason. An adventurous Dave Malloy gives us the quadruple threat with his musical “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,” which opened Monday at the Imperial Theatre after a long run Off Broadway.

He writes the music, lyrics, book, and orchestrations. He is by far the most successful with his orchestrations. There’s always a catchy ostinato to grab our attention under the sometimes less-than-inspired melodies. As a composer, he borrows from everybody: Carole King, Claude-Michel Schonberg, Giacomo Puccini, Michael Bolton.

Josh Groban, making his Broadway debut, comes to grief when Malloy has him channel Bolton. Groban’s lovely, soft-grained baritone should never be forced to deliver one of those caterwauling Bolton high notes.

“The Great Comet” tells the story of “War and Peace,” but ends abruptly before there’s any peace in Russia. Instead of going full Tolstoy, Malloy has the long-suffering Pierre (Groban impersonates Henry Fonda in the 1956 movie version, but without the Nebraska accent) declare his love for Natasha (Denée Benton presenting a Disney-princess version of the Tolstoy heroine), who, instead of falling in love with him, wanders off in an arsenic-induced stupor.

Anyone who knows the novel, the many TV and movie adaptations, and the great Prokofiev opera will rightfully miss Natasha’s reunion with her former fiancé, Andrey (Nicholas Belton), on his death bed after a particularly unfortunate battle.

More unfortunate is that Pierre’s wife, Helene (Amber Gray), doesn’t get to die of syphilis here. In the musical’s first act, Gray presents such a delicious Eartha Kitt-enish slut that to be deprived her squalid end in the second act is a major musical mishap. Gray is simply great.

Helene, as well as Andrey, just kind of disappear. Malloy ends his musical with the appearance of the Great Comet of 1811, which apparently didn’t appear in the skies of Russia until the following year. It could be seen with the naked eye for over 200 days.

“War and Peace” is a lot of story to tell in one musical. But why leave out its ending when “The Great Comet” meanders rather aimlessly for the first 45 minutes? Things don’t get cooking until shortly before the intermission when bad-boy Anatole (a slippery but not seductive Lucas Steele) appears to steal Natasha’s heart away. The musical should be retitled “Natasha, Pierre & Anatole.” In fact, Groban’s Pierre spends much of the first act in one of the production’s many orchestra pits, playing either the piano or accordion.

Perhaps you were startled to read the words “one of the production’s many orchestra pits.” A major New York theater hasn’t been this successfully reconfigured since Hal Prince put an environmental “Candide” into the Broadway Theatre in 1974. The Imperial is now a maze of catwalks, stairways, paths, and other unusual playing areas. It’s brilliant work from scenic designer Mimi Lien. Paloma Young’s costumes also dazzle, bringing “Blade Runner” to old Russia.

I’d recommend sitting on the stage, even though it means you sometimes have to crane your neck to get a look at the upstage playing area. Sitting on the stage has at least two advantages. You get to see the visual enchantment director Rachel Chavkin creates in the balcony, where her actors often wander. The dimly lit chorus sings the conclusion of Natasha and Anatole’s big duet “The Ball” from the aisle separating the front mezzanine from the rear, and it is even more breathtaking than the appearance of the Great Comet itself at the end.

While there are occasional dollops of levity in Malloy’s lyrics, Chavkin never stops spoofing his material, which is the major saving grace of this “Comet.” (The legendary Bob Fosse worked similar irreverent magic with the original “Pippin.”) Throughout the evening, clever bits of thespian business, as well as unobtrusive audience participation, manage to delight. And distract, in a good way.

The other advantage to sitting on the stage is that ushers let those ticket holders go to the head of the restroom lines. Otherwise, late comers to act two would disrupt the action on stage.