I discovered the show Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 on night on a drive home with friends. Most of my friends are passionate about theatre, so I wasn’t surprised when one of them grabbed the AUX cord, claiming that he wanted to introduce us to a musical that he had found. He only managed to play one song before the other passengers in the car took over the music once again, but that song had already gotten me hooked. The song, I would later find out, was called “Prologue” and it was the opening number of an off-Broadway musical of which I had never heard.
Before continuing, one should know that when I get excited by a show, I fall into a brief obsessive period where I attempt to learn as much about the show as I can. For those who do not know, the Great Comet is based on a 70-page section of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. As both a dedicated fan and avid reader, I decided that it would be a good idea to dig into the background of the story that I was going to see. I read the entirety of War and Peace, and watched both a movie depiction and BBC television series adaptation of the novel. The main storyline focuses on the lives of two characters; Pierre, a studious and awkward man who struggles to understand himself and the world around him, and Natasha, a young girl who deals with the emotional turmoil that young love brings.
Along with all of this, I dove head-first into the soundtrack. The recording to which I was introduced was the cast recording from 2013. The first thing that struck me upon listening to it was that the actress that played Natasha was Philippa Soo, the woman that portrayed Eliza Hamilton in Hamilton, and with portrayal effectively was my awe and affection. My love of Soo’s vocals propelled me through my first listening of the show, and if I hadn’t been by then, that made me certain that this show would join my list of great musicals.
Soo is incredibly talented and I could go on for hours about my love of her performances, but my love of the show extends past my admiration of her. The voices in this singular cast were all different and enticing. Dave Malloy, the main brain behind the Great Comet, sings as Pierre in this soundtrack and did a wonderful job showing the intense emotional struggle that Pierre goes through. Brittain Ashford’s emotional “Sonya Alone” still brings me to tears. Gelsey Bell’s haunting portrayal of Princess Mary was beautiful and Grace McLean was consistently one of the most captivating vocal performers I have heard in a long time. Nick Choksi and Amber Gray drew me into the party world of 19th Century Russia. Despite only having a few lines, Blake DeLong brought to life the pain and guilt felt in remembering that through all of this partying and vanity, “there’s a war going on.” The standout performer for me, however, was Lucas Steele. His smooth, seductive tone brought life to the Anatole that I had read about. His range amazed me and he managed to convince me that the Anatole that I was hearing was just as seductive, intoxicating, arrogant, and air-headed as Tolstoy had wanted him to be.
On March 12, my family and I had the pleasure of seeing the Great Comet on Broadway. Our seats were in one of the pits onstage, giving us an especially up close and personal experience with the show. I had learned that the show would be moving to Broadway and I had high hopes for its success. I did have a few worries, of course. For one thing, I was very nervous that my bias towards Soo would damage my ability to appreciate another’s portrayal of Natasha. I was concerned that Josh Groban, who currently plays Pierre on Broadway, would be a talented singer, but not a perfect Pierre. I tried to keep myself calm as we entered the theatre.
Upon taking our seats, however, my idea to use deep breathing exercises quickly flew out the window. I was too excited! The beautiful lights and the creative set up of the stage immediately took us into a different time. As everyone settled into their seats, actors burst out of every doorway. Every actor was dressed in an elaborate costume and some carried instruments that they would play later on. Nick Choksi, the actor playing Dolokov, stopped and talked with me briefly before the show.
The show itself lived up to every expectation. Josh Groban brought every aspect that I loved in Pierre to life and his vocals, especially in Dust and Ashes were enchanting. The actress that played Natasha that night was the understudy, Lauren Zakrin, who’s performance amazed me. The emotion that shown through every song and line was incredible and her voice was beautiful and clear. She was easily my favorite part of the show. My favorite scenes with her were her final scene, during her talk with Pierre, and her performance during “the Opera.” Grace McLean lived up to my every expectation and Brittain Ashford’s performance as Sonya made me cry, just as it should.
My biggest disappointment of the show was Lucas Steele.
Don’t get me wrong, he’s an amazing actor and he had the audience laughing constantly. His vocals were just as seductive and beautiful as the soundtrack suggested. He didn’t lack talent or charisma, but it was the way that the charisma was displayed that disappointed me. I went into the show expecting what I had seen and heard before: a debonair, composed, confident man that could seduce anyone with a charming line or two. Instead, I witnessed an Anatole that more closely resembled a tipsy Captain Jack Sparrow.
This is not to say I didn’t appreciate his performance, however. There were definitely moments where he portrayed Anatole as I had been expecting, such as in the song “Letters” and at the end of Act 1 in “The Ball.” His final scene in the show also gave the perfect impression of Anatole Kuragin and his selfishness. In these moments, he fully won me over.
Watching all of the actors explore these beloved and sometimes despicable characters was delightful. I am glad to say that, even though I felt very familiar with the storyline and its characters, I was entertained and surprised by the show and some of the artistic decisions that were made. The actors inspired the audience to join in their emotional journeys as they handled love, lust, jealousy, and enlightenment. Overall, I can honestly say that Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 was the most entertaining theatre experience of my life so far, and I have high hopes for the show as we enter the Tony season.