BWW Opera Review: THE GREAT COMET Walks the Broadway-Opera Tightrope Brilliantly

BWW Opera Review: THE GREAT COMET Walks the Broadway-Opera Tightrope Brilliantly
Josh Groban and Company. (Photo: Chad Batka)

During the opening sequence of NATASHA, PIERRE AND THE GREAT COMET OF 1812--the extravagant, whirlwind of a show now playing at Broadway's Imperial (how fitting) Theatre--I couldn't help thinking how the Met could learn a thing or two from a show like this. No, I don't mean encouraging the audience to have a glass or two of vodka too many to drink. Rather, it's how it uses an immersive setting, dazzlingly created by scenic designer Mimi Lien, to draw the audience in closer, managing to emphasize the intimacy of the story despite Rachel Chavkin's razzle dazzle staging.

THE GREAT COMET's the kind of music-theatre piece--with its grand, sung-through score/libretto by Dave Malloy, a large-scale story (based on a tiny fragment of Tolstoy's WAR & PEACE) and oversized emotions--that seems at home in a major setting, even though it started off life as a chamber work. It starts off with "Prologue," one of those production numbers that owes thanks to Stephen Sondheim--like "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" or "Comedy Tonight"--that lets you know what's ahead and who's who without seeming static. And, like Sondheim's quip about whether SWEENEY is a musical or an opera, this is a work that, with some tinkering and the right handling, might feel well at home in an opera house sometime down the line.

BWW Opera Review: THE GREAT COMET Walks the Broadway-Opera Tightrope Brilliantly
Denee Benton and Lucas Steele. (Photo: Chad Batka)

True, some of the theatrics seemed to be there to fill out the edges of the story for Broadway audiences not used to a lull in the action. But the show's success in grabbing the audience by the collar and dragging it into the action can't be discounted, thanks to director Chavkin's creative thinking, with a major assist from choreographer Sam Pinkleton. While I didn't see either of the previous incarnations of the show--either in its shoebox form or in that tent downtown--I can't imagine it worked better than this in engaging its audience.

(Of course, immersive theatre is nothing new on Broadway: Hal Prince's original CANDIDE from 1973 was perhaps its most notable success, as New York City Opera's production recently reminded us. But on-site productions that bring the audience into the action have become much more commonplace with smaller companies than someplace the size of the Met, even though its "Live in HD" series has shown what it's like to be closer to the singers than the best seat in the opera house ever could. Now, if only they could do it without sending us to the movie theatres...)

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Richard Sasanow Richard Sasanow is a long-time writer on art, music, food, travel and international business for publications including The New York Times, The Guardian (UK), Town & Country and Travel & Leisure, among many others. He also interviewed some of the great singers of the 20th century for the programs at the San Francisco Opera and San Diego Opera and worked on US tours of the Orchestre National de France and Vienna State Opera, conducted by Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta and Leonard Bernstein.