BWW Album Review: NATASHA, PIERRE & THE GREAT COMET OF 1812 (Original Broadway Cast Recording) is Multifaceted and Riveting
Inspired by a 70-page sliver of the sprawling 1215-page tome War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Dave Malloy's NATASHA, PIERRE & THE GREAT COMET OF 1812 is an all-encompassing feat of musical theater. The Off-Broadway version - which was performed in a custom tent called Kazino in the Meatpacking District and later a 45th Street lot in the heart of Midtown - was recorded and released by Ghostlight Records in 2013 (my review of that album can be read here). That spellbinding album introduced me to this deliciously delirious show and left me wanting more. Now, Reprise Records has released the sterling and elaborate NATASHA, PIERRE & THE GREAT COMET OF 1812 (Original Broadway Cast Recording).
Malloy's brilliant work for the score includes the modalities of Russian folk music, contemporary Broadway pop, electronic dance music, the arias of classic operetta, and even throat singing. He brilliantly blends all of these different and diffused styles to ensure that the score mirrors the disparate array of characters and the ways they are separated for each other by their position in society's class structure, their different ideologies, or even what family they belong to. Every one of Malloy's intricate orchestrations is infused with a deep understanding of the power of music to convey and manipulate emotions while telling stories.
Likewise, Malloy's lyrical work keenly bounces back and forth from narrative (which sometimes requires cast members to sing about themselves and others in third person) to the personal and introspective. These transitions are seamless and allow him to lift direct passages from Aylmer and Louise Maude's 1922 translation of the novel.
As much as I loved Malloy's angst filled and raw interpretation of Pierre on the original cast album, Josh Groban brings a different, more satisfying take on the character on this recording. Groban's Pierre is perfectly pensive, socially awkward, and becomes deftly commanding during the show's climatic moments. Groban's renowned and celebrated instrument sounds perfectly at home on songs like "Pierre," "The Duel," and "Pierre & Anatole." Yet, his recordings of "Dust and Ashes" and "The Great Comet of 1812" offer up two of the album's most awe-inspiring and beautiful moments. In both of these numbers, Groban performs with such sincerity and a natural, yet unassuming bravado that he takes listeners' breath away.
As Natasha, Denée Benton performs with a radiant charm across both discs. She sings with a cheerful vivacity that masterfully conveys Natasha's youth and folly. This is abundantly clear on tracks like "Natasha & Bolkonskys" and "Natasha & Anatole." Her scorn is mighty and stirring on "Sonya & Natasha," as is her tangible anguish and confusion on "Pierre & Natasha." Yet, Benton's spotlight stealing rendition of "No One Else" is the moment when her shimmering instrument is at its most captivating. Her gorgeous and lush take on the ballad is a true highlight of the record.
Lucas Steele performs the devilishly handsome Anatole with a cocky swagger that is just as effective on this recording as it is in person at the Imperial Theatre. Steele's sex-infused instrument uses sublime delicacy to woo Natasha and listeners alike, allowing audiences to understand how he could sweep the young girl away. This is epitomized by Steele on both "Natasha & Anatole" and "The Ball." However, Steele amazes listeners the most with his astonishing vocal range, especially when his voice soars through the stratosphere during Anatole's final moments in "Pierre & Anatole."
Since the Off-Broadway version, Grace McLean has added more oomph to her powerful, almost aggressive take on Marya D. This allows McLean to rapturously rattle listeners during "Moscow" and "Sunday Morning," and it all culminates in her pristinely performed rage on "In My House." Likewise, Gelsey Bell's intense vocal control is impressive as she modulates down and up half-steps on "The Private and Intimate Life of the House," her discordant countermelodies on "Natasha & Bolknonskys," and her hypnotic throat singing during "The Opera."
Other standouts include Brittain Ashford's majestic, indie-rock voice, which delights across the album. She often sings narrative passages, but Ashford gets the chance to expose Sonya's heartbreak and desire to protect her friend on "Sonya Alone." Ashford's full-bodied, throaty, and decidedly un-Broadway instrument makes "Sonya Alone" a true treasure. With "Charming," Amber Gray leaves listeners desperately wanting more of her. As the devious Hélène, Gray's poised and graceful instrument drips enchanting poison, letting all who encounter it happily fall under her spell.
If the album could be said to have a weakness at all it would be that it is presented in stereo as opposed to an immersive, surround sound format. That is the only aspect that makes the album not stand as a true-to-form capture of the Broadway production. When audiences attend a performance of GREAT COMET on Broadway, the cast and musicians (some of which are cast members playing instruments) swirl and swish around the audience. Therefore, no two people in the Imperial Theater will hear and experience the score in exactly the same way. Despite this, this album masterfully captures the energy and power of the performances and the artistry of Malloy's multifaceted and riveting score.
Reprise Record's NATASHA, PIERRE & THE GREAT COMET OF 1812 (Original Broadway Cast Recording) was the album I was looking forward to the most from this Broadway season, and it truly doesn't disappoint. It is a stunning capture of my favorite new musical of the season, and it will be a showpiece in any musical theatre aficionado's collection of cast albums for years to come.
NATASHA, PIERRE & THE GREAT COMET OF 1812 (Original Broadway Cast Recording) was released by Reprise Records on May 19, 2017. The album can be purchased from iTunes, Amazon, and elsewhere music is sold. Also, NATASHA, PIERRE & THE GREAT COMET OF 1812 is currently playing on Broadway. Visit http://greatcometbroadway.com for tickets and more information.