“Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812,” with Josh Groban and Denee Benton in the title roles, is a luscious, 360-degree immersive experience that feels like being smothered in velvet. After transferring seamlessly from Ars Nova to Kazino, Dave Malloy’s innovative musical treatment of a tiny wedge of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” has re-surfaced at the structurally revamped Imperial Theater in a Broadway transfer of the original, wondrously well-staged production by director Rachel Chavkin.
The environmental staging distributes the action throughout the banked seating levels that comprise both the auditorium and the performance spaces. The view is best from the stage, but the sightlines are also excellent from the banquettes at floor level. And sightlines are as critical as sound levels, because you really don’t want to miss a thing in this musically lush and visually opulent production.
The experience begins at the entrance to the auditorium, which Mimi Lien has designed in the gaudy vernacular of a Russian boudoir. The walls are swathed in vibrant red draperies and hung with gilded mirrors in ornate frames and reproductions of muddy 19th-century Russian landscapes. Sputnik-like chandeliers dance overhead and table lamps cast flattering shadows.
Dancers and band members in fanciful punk tatters designed by Paloma Young are scattered about the stage, up the aisles, and at one point all the way to the balcony. No matter where you’re seated, you’re never far from the action because the action is all over the theater.
Groban, in gorgeous voice despite being stuffed into a fat suit, is a soulful Pierre, a rich but unhappily married and profoundly depressed aristocrat doomed to destruction in the coming revolution. Drowning his existential angst in wine and whining, the moody philosopher sadly reflects that “I used to be better than this.” Meanwhile, his fashionable wife, Countess Helene (“a woman one should stay away from”), is played with fire by Amber Gray, who revels in the character’s delicious decadence.
In “Charming,” the Countess has her eye on innocent, dangerously naive Natasha (Benton, sweet of voice and lovely to look at). The virginal girl is ripe for plucking by a handsome rogue like Anatole, irresistible in Lucas Steele’s seductive performance. Only Natasha’s loving cousin, Sonya (Brittain Ashford, who delivers a gorgeous treatment of the song “Sonya Alone”) can save the girl from the decadent Muscovites lusting after her innocence.
Malloy, who wrote the marvelous book, tuneful music, and smart lyrics, understands and even admires the members of this aristocratic society, who in ensemble songs like “The Opera” and “Letters” reveal themselves as irresistibly charming and hopelessly corrupt.
Their days are clearly numbered, but until that comet comes, they’re as happy as children, playing at their devilish games.