“There’s a war going on out there somewhere…”
Based on Book 8 of Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” is about as contemporary as contemporary musical theatre can get. It’s the result of mixing the bleak melodrama of shows such as “Spring Awakening” with the furious passion of every pop-opera ever written. While the term “electropop opera” is a slight misnomer here (there is plenty of rock influence, too), Dave Malloy’s musical is one of the most finely crafted shows of the decade. It has not one, but two magnificent cast albums, each distinct from the other in their strengths and weaknesses. Here are my thoughts:
‘What About Pierre?’
One of the biggest surprises to me with the Broadway cast was hearing Josh Groban as Pierre Bezukhov. At first, I was a tad nervous about hearing Groban as “dear, bewildered and awkward Pierre.” Even after hearing him in the 2008 “Chess” concert, I was unsure of how he would do in a more rock-sounding show.
Luckily, Groban’s versatility never fails him, especially as the titular hero. He might not have the natural rock inflections of Malloy, but Groban’s robust tenor gives Pierre a more heroic quality. His performance on “Dust and Ashes,” a new soliloquy for the Broadway transfer, is a welcome gem.
With this musical being Groban’s Broadway debut, I hope it is the start of more appearances (and Tony nominations!) for him on the Great White Way.
‘Natasha Is Young’
Among the two Natasha Rostovas, Phillipa Soo has a beautiful falsetto, which makes me wonder why she doesn’t pursue more soprano roles. The range of emotions she displays (from confusion and naïveté to anger) is broader than anything she was given as a Schuyler sister. She is quite a womanly sounding Natasha, which is a contrast to Denée Benton’s more ingénue-like and, at times, more pop-sounding Natasha.
‘Hélène Is a Slut, Anatole Is Hot, Marya’s Old-School, Sonya’s Good…’
In the words of Hélène Kuragina, all of the returning cast members give charming performances, with a few standouts. Grace McLean remains delightful as Marya Dmitriyevna, though she sounds more regal in the Off-Broadway cast album and more boisterous in the Broadway recording (think “Les Misérables” factory worker).
Lucas Steele is still spectacularly menacing as the conniving Anatole, even if his vocals are somewhat more subtle/sotto voce during parts of the Broadway recording.
Brittain Ashford and Amber Gray deliver terrific reprises as Sonya and Hélène, respectively. Ashford remains convincing as Natasha’s concerned cousin, while Gray brings every last bit of soulful sass to the forefront.
As for the chorus, the ensemble sounds more polished and unified in the Broadway recording. There are no traces of individual voices sticking out, unlike the Off-Broadway recording. Although the score calls for 16 voices, the chorus sounds more effective with a larger group, a necessity for transferring to the capacity of a Broadway theatre.
I am personally biased toward the Original Off-Broadway cast, mostly for Soo’s dynamic chemistry with all the leads. However the original Broadway recording has few shortcomings, and I’m thrilled Broadway audiences now get to experience this innovative, cutting-edge work. If you haven’t heard of either of the cast albums for “The Great Comet of 1812,” study up a little bit and go buy them!