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The Political Is Personal This Tony Season: THE GREAT COMET and SWEAT

Josh Groban and the company
of The Great Comet

In this febrile climate, do we want societal critique from our theatre or pure escapism? As I experienced when I recently swapped BroadwayWorld UK Editor duties for a New York trip, both theatrical regions are currently just as charged by provocative, resonant commentary as by jazz hands ­- reflected by this year's Tony Award nominations.

Leading the pack (with 12 Tony nods) is Dave Malloy's audacious musical take on Tolstoy, the breathlessly named Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812. Rachel Chavkin's teeming production has rightly been praised for maintaining its unusually immersive, interactive approach during the move from Ars Nova via the Meatpacking District to Broadway's Imperial Theatre.

Those seated at cabaret-style tables on stage are within touching distance of the talented actor-musicians, who hurtle down stairs, share vodka shots and dumplings, and encourage the equally feverish musical participation of audience members (who knew a small, egg-shaped maraca could provide such elation?). The action extends, too, into the stalls and even the mezzanine - to the vocal delight of all.

Crucially, history is also brought within touching distance, as the arch, slangy prologue immediately assures. Clarity rules, with characters pithily summarised - "Dolokhov is fierce", "Hélène is a slut". Malloy's meaty sung-through score blends Slavic folk with ballads and electro-punk; Mimi Lien's design juxtaposes Soviet austerity with a riot of red velvet, gilt and starburst chandeliers; and Paloma Young's costumes marry Empire fashions with contemporary grunge and dashes of S&M. History is hot.

Lucas Steele and Denée Benton
in The Great Comet

Shades of Hamilton, naturally, but Malloy employs a closer zoom, trusting that we can reconstruct context through vivid engagement with Tolstoy's characters. The Napoleonic wars are defined by absence: the event that temporarily removes Natasha's fiancé Andrey, leaving her alone in Moscow and vulnerable to seduction by the roguish Anatole.

More problematic is the erosion of the period's social norms via anachronistic dress and speech. Yes, it's pointed that a woman may still, in 2017, be perceived as promiscuous for behaviour that merely lends a man swagger, but it lowers the story's stakes when Natasha is just one in a sea of people joyfully stomping on 19th-century propriety.

Yet Malloy's triumph lies in closing the imaginative gap between then and now, us and them. Those far-off Russian nobles become bickering friends, giddy flirts, bored kids shopping, clubbing and getting into fights. There's a tangible youthful intensity: the overwhelming sensation of a powerful crush, a fervent female friendship, or the total devastation following first heartbreak or betrayal. The extended second-act rave is the most blood-pumping exhilaration you're likely to experience in theatre.

It's blessedly transporting, but also a recognisable - and resonant - Tolstoy microcosm: irrational human decisions; maturation through crisis; the malaise of a purposeless life, and the sharp awakening of falling in love; the interconnected web of people and choices indiscernible from within; and the critique of a dying world that we still come to cherish, and to mourn. It's philosophy made flesh, and all too human.

Josh Groban in The Great Comet

The role of depressive, despairing Pierre is a curious choice for star casting, given its relative size: Josh Groban (transformed by padding and beard) initially has little to do but supply doleful accordion playing. But he soon proves his worth in aria "Dust and Ashes", delivering vocals that are as emotionally articulate as they are sumptuous.

The angelically voiced Denée Benton is revelatory as Natasha, dangerously innocent but reflective enough to grow increasingly conflicted, and there are superb turns from Lucas Steele's preening Disney villain Anatole, Amber Gray as the perilously seductive Hélène, Grace McLean's formidable Marya, and particularly Brittain Ashford as Natasha's tortured best friend, her rendition of "Sonya Alone" exquisitely delicate.

At its core, the show offers the epiphany of hope: for compassion, connection, growth and meaning in a turbulent world. Naïve, arguably, but nevertheless food for the soul in the current climate.

A vital understanding of the latter comes through Lyn Nottage's extraordinarily prescient powder keg of a play, Sweat - now Pulitzer Prize-winning and also Tony nominated. Back in 2011, Nottage interviewed working-class residents of poverty-stricken Reading, Pennsylvania, a city transformed by the loss of heavy industry and its shifting ethnic make-up. The play is set in 2000 and 2008, but could well be topically subtitled 'The Making of a Trump Voter'.

Johanna Day, Michelle Wilson
and Alison Wright in Sweat

In the current production at Studio 54, certain lines have an inescapable ring - such as a reference to the factory, which employs most of the characters, potentially shipping jobs to Mexico - but most striking is Nottage's detailed portrait of the erosion of hope.

In some ways, it's a thematic counterpoint to The Great Comet, though it shares its spectre of looming social change, national and personal identity crisis, and a hedonism that tips into self-destruction.

The close bond of three female steel factory workers is illustrated by their regular meetings at a local dive bar, but this fear of extinction soon introduces hostility, division and tribalism - amplified by African-American Cynthia gaining a promotion coveted by her white friend, and by the management's use of alternative, immigrant labour to break a strike.

It's survival instinct at its basest, viewing the advancement of another as a direct threat, and the consequences are devastating. An electrifying climactic scene turns this home-from-home into a cage match, Nottage offering a damning indictment of the fostering of rage, bigotry and violence among the economically challenged and disenfranchised.

Johanna Day and Carlo Alban in Sweat

Kate Whoriskey's naturalistic production (featuring an evocative bar set from John Lee Beatty) is carefully paced, relentlessly building to that moment of horror. It suits this slow-motion tragedy, which indicates plenty of opportunities for events to unfold differently, but this group is as powerless to see that as they are in every other element of their lives.

Nottage's framing device, which dangles a mystery, can be a tad irksome, and her research sometimes exhibits in overly schematic and explicit characterisation.

But, if at the blunter end of the spectrum, the writing is frequently arresting - as when the tough-talking Tracey allows a chink of vulnerability while describing the loss of respect for craftsmen, or the heartrending fear that no matter how hard you work, you'll never have enough to rest.

Johanna Day is riveting as Tracey, alongside the equally effective Michelle Wilson as shrewd Cynthia and Alison Wright as booze-obliterated Jessie; those relationships feel lived-in and specific, and their loss agonising. Excellent, too, is James Colby as bartender Stan, cast off by management following a factory accident, and John Earl Jelks as Cynthia's drug addict husband - slightly further along the ruinous path they are all walking.

The solution, argues Nottage, lies not in debating who does or does not belong, but in taking care of one another - "that's how it should be".

Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812 at Imperial Theatre until 7 January, 2018

Sweat at Studio 54 until 19 November

Picture credit: Chad Batka, Joan Marcus

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From This Author Marianka Swain

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