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

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...)

Of course, the staging couldn't make THE GREAT COMET a success without its first-rate score, under the fine direction of Or Matias. It's more Broadway, electropop and other popular genres than new opera (though there's some of that, too) and so are the voices--not that there's anything wrong with that. Padded and shleppy, you'd hardly know that Josh Groban, as Pierre, is the star attraction in the cast--until he opens his mouth. Making his Broadway debut, he never disappoints, with his big, bright baritenor and astute acting that's not afraid to go for the low laugh as well as the big dramatic moment. Groban scored a major hit with his big, introspective solo, "Dust and Ashes," added for this version of the show. He's a welcome addition to the Broadway rolls.

So is Denee Benton, also making her Broadway debut as Natasha, with her glistening soprano and air of naivete and vulnerability. (She seems a cousin to another Russian heroine, Tatyana in Tchaikovsky's EUGENE ONEGIN.) She has a huge range and the power to pull off anything the composer demands of her. Her solo aria [yes, that's what they call it], "No One Else," was gorgeous, as were her costumes by Paloma Young.

There really wasn't a weak link among the cast. Heading the list is Lucas Steele as the vain, preening Anatole, who seduces Natasha even though he's married. He may lay it on a bit thick but he's a pleasure to watch and his combination of Broadway belt and falsetto worked very well. Amber Gray's husky voice and sex appeal made "Charming"--her dissection of Natasha's appeal--work wonderfully. Some of the others had some trouble with their enunciation, but it hardly detracted from the overall effect.

Besides that big opening number, there are quite a few impressive ensemble pieces, including a snarky piece about opera in Act I that gleefully hits the bulls-eye, with many of the performers playing double- or triple-duty as dancers and musicians. If I have any complaints at all, it's that there aren't enough quiet moments, like the gorgeous duet between Pierre and Natasha near the end of Act II, to give us a break from the whirlwind goings-on.

For opera-goers among the audience members, the arrival of the Comet of 1812 at the end of the evening offers a shock of recognition, looking very much that big, sparkly chandelier dangling from the center of the ceiling at the Met. It's a reminder that the genres are closer than many people think--and are both there to raise our spirits and improve our lives.

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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.