From the moment I walked into the Imperial I knew this would be an unusual experience. The entire theater is subsumed entirely into the show; audience members sit on the stage, lanterns light up the aisles, walls are draped in red velvet, performers dance behind the seats, and twinkling starburst chandeliers dangle from the ceiling. The intimate staging portends the immersive experience that is The Great Comet of 1812. Pierogis are tossed at the audience (I caught one, delicious!), as are musical shakers the audience is encouraged to use often.
All I knew going in was that the musical is based on a segment of Tolstoy’s War & Peace, chronicling Natasha Rostova’s affair with Anatole Kuragin. Natasha’s fiance Andrey is off at war, and in his absence Natasha falls prey to Moscow’s charms and delights. One of these charms is Anatole, who enlists his sister Helene’s help to seduce Natasha. Helene is married to the titular Pierre, who is good friends with Andrey and Natasha’s family. Put like that, it all seems somewhat banal, but these events are taken and transformed into something much grander.
The performance is absolutely wild. Imagine a cross between a 1930s German cabaret performance and a late 90s underground rave. The costumes reflect this eclectic fusion of styles and time periods; the dancers simultaneously resembled go-go dancers and characters in a Russian-inspired steampunk novel. This vaguely phantasmagorical aesthetic is most embodied in the ensemble performances, which are bursting with boundless energy on the part of the performers. There is so much movement in The Great Comet; it’s all so fun and exciting it makes you want to jump up and join in!
The music is gorgeous, a dizzying blend of traditional Slavic folk music, operatic pop, baroque pop, and electronic. They come together to produce a performance that is dynamic and exuberant. The standout performances for me were Lucas Steele’s Anatole and Amber Gray’s Helene. I’ve only seen Amber Gray perform once before, but her style seems to always include powerful vocals and very intense acting that shocks you with its authenticity. Steele, with his platinum blonde faux-hawk, delightfully preening demeanor, and croaking tenor stole every scene he was in.
Denee Benton is wonderful in her debut on Broadway, her belting soprano belying her tiny figure and her innocent grins bestowing her with ingenue wholesomeness. Of course, Josh Groban’s Pierre is as incredible as expected. He brings to the table not only his much-praised vocal prowess, but a performance that is laced with sorrow and self-loathing. The role was clearly written for someone with his vocal abilities in mind, and so I look forward to seeing the show a second time with Hamilton’s Okieriete “Oak” Onaodowan as Pierre. Oak, who originated the roles of Hercules Mulligan and James Madison, has an incredibly powerful, booming, and versatile voice that is absolutely perfect for the role of Pierre.
Overall I was reminded strongly of the other Rachel Chavkin work I’ve seen: Hadestown. The similarities are glaring. Both works are lively and dynamic, both feature a mixture of traditional solos and overwhelmingly ebullient ensemble pieces, both are a blend of styles and time periods, and both have unique staging. And, not for nothing, but both works also have black woman originating lead roles. I have no idea if Chavkin has any hand in casting, but that her works seem to have this emphasis on diversity in common certainly bodes well for her future projects. I’m definitely going to be following Chavkin’s career closely from now on.
It’s difficult to sum up The Great Comet in any meaningful way, and perhaps that’s a good thing. The show’s strength is in its eclectic style and its wildly enthusiastic and somewhat bizarre ensemble performances. The atmospheric staging contributes to the intimacy of this immersive theater experience, transporting you from an old New York City theater to nineteenth-century Russia with a steampunk flair. It’s fun and funny and self-aware and outlandish and exciting, like being invited to an elite private party where everyone is a little bit high on drugs. It’s one hell of a memorable show, and I can’t wait to experience it again.