rtb found out that one of our favorite performers, Ingrid Michaelson, would be joining the cast of Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 for a limited run. violaleeblue, rtb, and I bought tickets. Truthfully, during the Tony Awards, the show I was most impressed by and the one I wanted to see was Come From Away. I remember getting up and leaving the room during The Great Comet performance because I was so bored. So I wasn’t sure what to expect – Ingrid had wanted to perform on Broadway for years and I wanted to see her dream come true. But would her presence be enough to hold my attention?
When I got to the Imperial Theatre it turned out that the scenic design would be more than enough to hold my attention. When you enter the theater you walk through a lobby made up of dull grey walls with Soviet-era posters and stencils (pertaining to the show) on the walls. The entire theater was a Russian nightclub with Russian music playing in the background. Heavy red curtains, paintings and photographs hung from the walls, tables set up on the stage and at least one table on every row. The ceiling was a constellation of chandeliers – if you’ve been to the Met than you know the type of chandeliers I’m talking about. Some of the audience were in bleachers and others sitting at tables on the stage, which more than made up for the lost seats because of the tables in the theatre and small stage in the rear mezzanine. There were also two staircases on either side of the stage that came up to the mezzanine.
It turns out that the show was originally staged at Ars Nova, where they turned the small cabaret into a Russian nightclub. (And Phillipa Soo was the original Natasha. She left the show to star in a little show called Hamilton.) The show moved from the 87-seat cabaret to a 199-seat tent, where the audience was served drinks and borscht at their tables (and several costumes were ruined by red stains), and then 540-seat Boston theater, where they experimented in making a theater feel intimate. Set designer Mimi Lien had a problem – how to turn a 1138-seat theater into a cabaret. She came up with a brilliant solution that made the theater intimate and brought the action to those of us in the cheap seats (I was in the last row of the rear mezzanine). And lighting designer Bradley King started with a comet that was four 400-watt bulbs and became 24 bulbs in the theater.
We were warned (via email) that we would not be seated after the show began and I could see why. Some of the audience was on stage, so obviously that would interfere with the action. But those stairs up to the mezzanine were used regularly by the company, so even up there we would be in the way. The show began with the company giving us the usual spiel about turning off our cell phones. And also telling us to keep our arms and legs out of the aisle and warned us that a strobe light would be in use for a very short period of time.
The show began with the main characters giving us their names and a brief description. It went on like “Twelve Days of Christmas” so there was constant repetition. There was also a diagram in the Playbill that explained the relationship of each character to the other. I found it difficult to follow and was hoping that I’d catch up like I did when I saw Hamilton and had to figure out who each character was. I knew the story was taken from Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace but it took a while for me to really understand the story – I’d say my “Aha!” moment came about halfway through the first act. Natasha (Denée Benton) is engaged to Andrey (Nicholas Belton), who is off at war. She is best friends with her cousin Sonya (Ingrid Michaelson). Pierre (Dave Malloy) is best friends with Andrey. Pierre is married to Hélène (Amber Gray) who is the sister of Anatole (Lucas Steele). Anatole meets Natasha at a party when she is visiting her godmother Marya D (Grace McLean) and the two fall in love. There’s also some business with Andrey’s father Bolkonsky (Belton) and sister Mary (Gelsey Bell) and a fight between Pierre and Anatole’s friend Dolokhov (Nick Choksi), who is sleeping with Hélène.
The action moves quickly except when it doesn’t. All the performers were good (Steele did hit one flat note at the end of an important song). Malloy, who wrote the music, lyrics, book, and orchestrations, is probably the weakest on stage but his pure enthusiasm pulls him through. Josh Groban had just left that role and Okieriete Onaodowan (Hamilton) was scheduled to begin that role in a week. So we missed the two big stars but we were really there to see Ingrid. (And judging by the applause at the end, so were many others.)
I thought the director Rachel Chavkin did Ingrid a great disservice (I’m assuming it was the director’s choice). Ingrid has a unique voice – one that has been copied by other indie singers but she’s the original. Most of the uniqueness was stripped from her voice so that she didn’t sound very different from the ingénue. Closing your eyes you wouldn’t be able to tell who was on stage singing.
The best parts of the musical are when the ensemble dances around the stage, up the stairs, and on the small stage in the mezzanine. They play instruments, dance, and sing all around us. The company and the main characters interact with the audience on stage but it’s the company up in the cheap seats that makes it fun. They passed around a basket full of egg shakers for the audience (I didn’t get one) for the Gypsy number. The troika driver Balaga (Paul Pinto) has a ball dancing and singing. During a club scene, the company changes from their 19th century clothes to modern rave outfits including glow sticks. There’s a pit center stage with the conductor and a couple of musicians –where Malloy joined and played piano sometimes – (the rest of the musicians were scattered around the stage and up in the boxes) and in the pit was a DJ spinning tunes during that club scene. These types of scenes were also an opportunity for the Opera Singers (Bell and Pinto) and Opera Dancers (Brandt Martinez and Mary Page Nance) to shine. The ensemble is Sumayya Ali, Courtney Bassett, Josh Canfield, Kennedy Caughell, Ken Clark, Lulu Fall, Ashley Pérez Flanagan, Alex Gibson, Billy Joe Kiessling, Blaine Alden Krauss, Martinez, Andrew Mayer, Page Nance, Shoba Narayan, Azudi Onyejekwe, Pearl Rhein, Heath Saunders, Katrina Yaukey, and Lauren Zakrin. Whenever the ensemble is performing the energy level rises measurably.
Chavkin, Lien, and King did a wonderful job turning a big theatre into a small cabaret. But I don’t think the story was enough. And don’t ask me about the comet. It’s Pierre and the comet at the end and I’m really not sure what that was about.
Costume designer Paloma Young created some beautiful pieces (and managed to make a buxom Ingrid almost as flat-chested as Benton). Sound designer Nicholas Pope also did a great job as did choreographer Sam Pinkleton. The rest of the technical staff did a good job – Hair and wig designer Leah J. Loukas; music coordinator John Miller; music director Or Matias; and music supervisor Sonny Paladino.
The musicians were conductor Matias; associate conductor Matt Doebler; Marilyn Cole (oboe/English horn); Hideaki Aomori (clarinet/bass clarinet); Thad DeBrock (guitar); Claudia Chopek (viola/concertmaster); Caryl Paisner, Alon Bisk (cellos); John Murchison (bass); Joey Cassata (drums); Matias (piano); and Doebler (keys/accordion/synth/glockenspiel).
Bell and Pinto also played third roles – maidservant (Bell) and servant (Pinto).
I didn’t leave the theater singing any of the songs. But, as was said about another Broadway musical, I did leave singing the scenery.
By Carene Lydia Lopez