On Tuesday, October 18th, 2016, I saw what is, in my opinion, one of the best musicals I’ve seen in a long, long time. And I’m not saying that merely because of the reason I saw this show in the first place.
Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 stars Denée Benton and Josh Groban as the two title characters, and neither disappointed. In fact, they blew me away.
Back in May, I bought my ticket for the first preview of this new musical immediately (literally immediately) after getting an email telling me that fans on Josh Groban’s mailing list were getting first crack at getting tickets. I managed to score an on stage seat to the very first preview, and let me tell you, it was worth every penny.
The experience of The Great Comet begins the moment you step into the lobby of the Imperial Theatre. It’s decrepit; old Russian propaganda posters are plastered to the wall, as well as a simple, black and white show poster. You feel like you’re walking through an old theatre which has been left abandoned. My seat was on the orchestra side of the stage set up, but to get to it, I was led through a hall that went under the stage and back up to the back of it. This hallway was even more decrepit than the hallway, and I felt like I was being led through a secret, underground tunnel to somewhere hidden from the public eye. This hallway ended at large double doors at the top of the stage. Upon stepping through, I was immediately transported to a 19th Century Russian supper club.
Upholstered banquette seats, chairs, and armchairs line the various avenues of the stage, and ultimately surround a pit at front centre stage that serves as both Pierre’s Salon and a small orchestra pit where the bassist, pianist, main conductor, and a small drumkit sit. Two staircases ascend from the stage to the mezzanine, and another two staircases descend from the stage into the orchestra. The action of the show happens all around, and those who have the on stage seating are right in the thick of it. And it’s amazing.
My seat was lower stage left, next to the stairs that came down into the audience. I had a nearly unobstructed view of everything that happened on stage. I say nearly, because I lost sight of the actors only if they sat down while at stage right. Other than that, I felt like I was in the middle of the action, and I loved every minute of it.
The Great Comet is based on Book 8 of Leo Tolstoy’s, War and Peace. It focuses on Natasha’s affair with Anatole (played by Lucas Steele), and Pierre’s search for meaning and enlightenment in his life.
Natasha is a nineteen year old, naïve yet vain ingenue, whose fiancé, Andrey (played by Nicholas Belton), is away fighting in the war. Natasha and her cousin, Sonya (portrayed by Brittain Ashford) arrive in Moscow in the winter of 1812 to stay with their godmother, Marya D. (played by Grace McLean). While there, Natasha meets her fiancé’s family, Mary and Bolkonsky (played by Gelsey Bell and Nicholas Belton respectively), where tensions rise. She is later invited to the Opera, where she meets Anatole, a dashingly handsome, yet already married officer. This meeting leaves her confused about her love for Andrey. Later, Anatole and his friend Dolokhov (played by Nick Choksi) invite Pierre out for a night of drinking, where they cross paths with Pierre’s wife of a loveless marriage, Hélène (played by Amber Gray), who taunts him with Dolokhov. Offended and drunk, Pierre challenges Dolokhov to a duel and almost gets himself killed. Afterward, Pierre reflects on his life and what meaning it could possibly have. The next day, after Natasha confesses her tribulations in church, Hélène arrives, and invites Natasha to the ball she is hosting that night. Natasha accepts, and while there, is seduced by Anatole. This concludes the first act. After a fifteen minute intermission, the show continues with Natasha and Anatole making plans to elope. Natasha calls off her engagement with Andrey, which begins the climax of the piece. Sonya finds out, and, knowing the elopement will lead to Natasha’s ruin, tries to do everything she can to stop it - even if it means being on the receiving end of Natasha’s anger and hatred. Meanwhile, Anatole and Dolokhov make preparations for the elopement, but those plans are thwarted by Marya D. Marya scolds a grief-stricken Natasha, and then calls on Pierre to handle the situation. As a result, Pierre kicks Anatole out of Moscow. Anatole’s exultation is too much for Natasha, and she poisons herself. During all of this, Andrey returns from the war, and Pierre tells him about the scandal. He asks Andrey to forgive, but Andrey is unable to. Pierre then visits Natasha, and tells her that were circumstances different, he would ask for her hand in marriage. A grateful Natasha thanks him for his compassion and friendship. Afterward, Pierre is finally given peace and experiences enlightenment when the Great Comet of 1812 enters the night sky.
The Great Comet filled me with a magical wonder I haven’t experienced since I saw Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat when I was eight years old. Maybe it was because my seat had me so close to the action, but this show sent me on one hell of a roller coaster ride of emotions. I was happy, amazed, bewildered, angry, heartbroken… all in the span of 3 hours.
Denée Benton brought childlike wonderless and innocent/naive vanity to Natasha; it made her relatable and lovable. I often found myself wanting to protect her from everything life was going to throw at her. I think we have all experienced moments of harmless vanity - I know I have - before life’s curveballs come our way. We have also been teenagers and have lived in the moment, acting on impulse. Impulse is how I ended up seeing this show in the first place!
Lucas Steele makes Anatole likable, even if Anatole is quite pompous, and already married. What Anatole’s marriage to the other woman is like, I don’t know, but despite his pompous air, Steele plays him in such a way where he genuinely cares for Natasha. Like Natasha, he is young and impulsive, and full of life. He cares not that Natasha is already betrothed when they meet; he merely sees it as an obstacle to overcome, and overcome it he does. Steele originated the role of Anatole, and it shows. He knows his character inside and out - he knows Anatole’s history, his motives, his needs and wants, his dislikes even when we don’t. All of this knowledge, and experience of the character gives Steele the ability to play the part perfectly, allowing the audience to both adore him and be reserved about him all in the same breath. I look forward to seeing where Steele’s career goes off to next.
Amber Gray as Hélène… What is there to say?! Gray, like Steele, originated her role back in 2012 when the show was in its infancy. There is no doubt about it that Hélène is a promiscuous woman who enjoys her life of promiscuity. Hélène married Pierre for his money after claiming, at a dinner, that she and Pierre were engaged. Pierre being too kind and shy to deny it, went along for the ride. Hélène is manipulative, but in a charming way. She’s the type who manipulates by understanding what the other wants, and giving them those things. And Natasha being so young and naive, is the perfect target. Gray works the role wonderfully, and it’s clear she understands all the facets of what makes Hélène who she is.
Brittain Ashford shines as Sonya. Her unique voice can be heard on the cast recording of The Great Comet, and the life she gives Sonya is amazing. She feels everything Sonya does, and conveys it honestly. There wasn’t a dry eye in the theatre as she sang, “Sonya Alone” and her voice betrayed the tears streaming down her cheeks. Sonya is the type of friend who would do anything to keep those she loves safe, no matter the cost. Watching Ashford embody Sonya is a real treat, and she is another talent to watch out for.
Grace McLean plays Marya D. as the kind of godmother who is strict, but strict because she loves those in her care. Even when she scolds Natasha for planning to elope with Anatole, she does it from a place of love. She, like Sonya, does not want to see Natasha go to ruin. McLean walks the line between strict and kind with Marya D in a way that is believable and wonderful.
Nicholas Belton is double cast as Bolkonsky and Andrey. Bolokov is a feeble old man with Dementia. A poignant moment for me was when he panics because he can’t find his glasses. His glasses are sitting atop his head. As someone who watched two grandmothers go through Dementia, I recognized the signs of it, the mood swings and the memory loss this disease brings with it. As Andrey, he conveys seriousness and love for Natasha. At least until Natasha calls off their engagement. Belton conveys the right amount of anger and grief when Pierre tells him about what has happened. Belton makes Andrey’s inability to forgive real and understandable. It left me wanting to give Andrey a hug, just to tell him that things would, eventually, be okay and that it wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t anybody’s fault.
Gelsey Bell gives Mary the perfect balance of love, resentment, and pity, especially when it comes to her father, Bolkonsky. While Andrey is away fighting the war, Mary finds herself as both daughter and maid to her aging father. She is the one who keeps him in line, and endures his moments of senile anger. Despite all of this, he loves him and would do anything to protect him. A poignant moment for me is when she gets angry with him, but when he forgets where his glasses are, she is filled with immense guilt for thinking the way she has. This is another moment that is familiar for me, as it’s something I have experienced myself. I went through it during the last year or so of my father’s battle with cancer several years ago, and I go through it now as I fight with myself about moving out on my own with an aging mother who has medical issues. Bell plays it realistically and, in some ways, reminds me that I’m not alone in how I have, and will probably continue to feel. And that’s a pretty powerful thing. Bell also doubles as both a Maidservant, and an Opera Singer throughout the show, and brings all characters she plays to magical life.
Nick Choksi gives Dolokhov such a conceited air that I want to stay as far away from him as I possibly can. This is a good thing. He is haughty, he is flirtatious, he is a war hero/assassin… And he makes sure everyone knows it. The woman flock to him with his war hero/assassin status, and the men want to be be him. He also has no qualms about having Hélène on his arm and teasing Pierre about it. In layman's terms, he’s an asshole. Yet, without his character, so much would be missing. Choksi gives Dolokhov colour and flavour that the show needs. He gives Dolokhov the kind of colour and flavour all shows need.
Paul Pinto plays Balaga, the Troika driver who is to whisk Anatole and Natasha away to elope. He’s happy-go-lucky with just a touch of crazy. He is how Anatole and Natasha are to get out of town to marry. Balaga enjoys what he does and that comes through in Pinto’s performance. I can only hope to enjoy what I do as much as Balaga enjoys what he does. Pinto also takes on the roles of an Opera singer, and (servant) during the show.
Josh Groban was born to play Pierre. I believe he brought some of his own life experiences to the role, and truly brought him to life for me. Josh played him in such a way that I recognized a lot of myself in Pierre. Pierre is the “old soul” of the cast, the one who watches everything, even if it is merely from his window. He is generous, kind, compassionate, thirsts for knowledge, is faithful to his wife - even if he doesn’t love her, and searches for meaning and purpose in his life. Purpose is something I have searched for for about two years since I found out I was stillborn. There is a reason I was brought back from the dead (aside from live-saving CPR), a reason I am here and living. It’s a reason I’ve sought for a few years and still haven’t found. The moment when I realized I was like Pierre in many ways was during Dust and Ashes, after Pierre nearly gets himself killed and he’s questioning what he is doing with his life and realizes he can’t live the way he has been anymore. I went through that exact same realization at the beginning of this year, when my depression was becoming more than I could handle alone. I could no longer live the way I had been, and something had to change. I had to do something to change the course my life was headed on. So, I did. I sought help for my depression. I haven’t yet had my comet moment like Pierre does at the end of the show, but I hope to one day experience it.
Natasha, Pierre, And The Great Comet of 1812 is one of the best musicals I have seen in a long time. It has an eclectic soundtrack, a mix of pop, electronic, and gritty Russian folk. It does well in reminding us that this show is set in Moscow, though you could quite easily pluck it from this place and time and drop it in a different one and everything would still fit and make sense.
As I stated in the beginning of this review, The Great Comet is one of my new favourite musicals. In fact, I think it may have done something I never thought another musical could do: surpass RENT. I first saw RENT in 2004 at the Nederlander in New York, and instantly fell in love with the story, a story I have found myself relating more and more to the older I get. However, The Great Comet did all of that and more. It lifted my soul in a way I don’t think I’ve ever truly experienced. I experienced uncontainable happiness, sadness, heartbreak, all in the span of about three hours. I don’t think that’s ever happened. A show has to be pretty special to surpass my love of RENT, and I think this one has.
If you are able to, make a trip to New York to see The Great Comet. It officially opens November 1st, and doesn’t currently have an end date. I am praying that, either I can make another whirlwind trip down to see it again, or that it eventually tours to Toronto. The world seriously needs to experience The Great Comet in all of its splendour.
Check out the Telecharge or The Great Comet websites for tickets.
The Great Comet: http://greatcometbroadway.com/