Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812

NatashaOriginal Off-Broadway Cast, 2013 (Ghostlight) 4 Stars (4 / 5) Some musical theater writers have had great difficulty adapting epic, classic novels for the stage: Doctor Zhivago, Jane Eyre, East of Eden, etc. The trouble is, how do you sing a thousand pages or so in two and half hours (or even three hours) without rushing through the story and shortchanging the emotional gravity of the characters? In adapting Tolstoy’s War and Peace as a musical, writer/performer Dave Malloy chose to solve this problem by focusing on a single chapter of the huge novel and expanding it, rather than attempting to condense the entire work. The result is Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, one of the most fascinating and fulfilling scores in recent years. Malloy’s music weaves an elaborate tapestry of wildly varied colors and styles, with influences ranging from Rachmaninoff to ’80s club beats and including everything in between. Songs like the beautiful “No One Else,” the pulsating “Balaga,” or the intense “In My House” couldn’t be more different from each other in many ways — and yet, thanks to Malloy’s smart storytelling and endlessly inventive orchestrations, they all seem part of one score and one vision. As a lyricist, Malloy is quite good, if not as audaciously adventurous as he is musically. His lyrics flexibly move from recitative to poetically mystical musings to characters singing their own stage directions (examples: “Anatole followed in his usual jaunty step,” “I blush happily”). Malloy is also smart enough to know when to directly quote Tolstoy’s vivid prose, and indeed, that’s when the lyrics are at their best. The cast, headed by a pre-Hamilton Phillipa Soo as Natasha and Malloy as Pierre, is fantastic. They craftily embody Tolstoy’s characters with the contemporary spin Malloy has written for them. Soo, in particular, leads the way with a performance that’s stunning in its vocal beauty and non-cloying innocence. Natasha, Pierre enjoyed a successful run Off-Broadway (the basis of this recording) and, after a few false starts, finally came Broadway in the fall of 2016. The Great White Way is more exciting for it. (See review below.) — Matt Koplik

NatashaBroadway Cast, 2017 (Reprise) 5 Stars (5 / 5) Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 was slightly revised for its transfer to Broadway. Dave Malloy performed some minor surgery on the score, primarily in Act 1, where certain sections are shortened (“The Private and Intimate Life of the House”), tweaked (“The Duel”), or rewritten altogether (“Sunday Morning”). The changes are relatively small in sum, but their impact is immense. Only the expansion of “The Abduction” (adding an extra three minutes) is a slight misstep, as that sequence now overstays its welcome before finally plunging into “In My House.” Malloy also appropriately expanded his vocal arrangements for a larger ensemble, and did some light re-orchestrating for a more sizeable orchestra; the sound is now even more lush than before, but not overwhelming. The majority of the supporting cast is the same here as on the Off Broadway recording, and having now lived with their roles for three years (on and off), most have improved their performances. Brittain Ashford, especially, makes a stronger impression here with a more defined, energetic Sonya, and Lucas Steele provides an even more exotic Anatole, bringing extra heat to the recording. The biggest casting changes are in the two title roles: singing superstar Josh Groban is Pierre, and newcomer Denee Benton is Natasha. Though Benton has a smooth, clear voice, it doesn’t reach the same heights as Phillipa Soo’s; nor is Benton’s performance as endearing as her predecessor’s, and she tends to emphasize Natasha’s naiveté in broad strokes. Still, she does well in quieter moments such as “No One Else,” and in “Pierre and Natasha” with Groban, who brings a great deal of soul to the recording. While Malloy more fully inhabits the “everyman” characteristic of Pierre on the Off-Broadway album, Groban’s voice is stronger and more passionate, his performance deeply moving. Groban also gets a wonderful new song: “Dust and Ashes,” Pierre’s fierce plea to wake from his existential coma. Though some fans of the previous recording may miss Soo’s performance, this one is the definitive representation of Dave Malloy’s masterwork. — M.K.