“The Great Comet” soars high

Josh Rittberg

Staff Writer

Josh Groban excites audiences with his amazing performance in his debut Broadway role. (Photo courtesy of hollywoodreporter.com)
Josh Groban excites audiences with his amazing performance in his debut Broadway role. (Photo courtesy of hollywoodreporter.com)

At Broadway’s newest hit The Great Comet, the experience begins as soon as audience members enter the lobby of the newly reconfigured Imperial Theater. The lobby, which looks like a Russian bunker, evokes the mood of the lavish nightclub setting at the theater. The stunning set design by MacArthur Genius award winner, Mimi Lien, creates a lively environment where the actors can freely roam around the theater. Along with onstage seating, there are also pathways throughout the mezzanine and orchestra that allow for plenty of audience interaction.

Lien’s set is greatly complimented by the dazzling lighting design of Bradley King, which boasts rock concert styled bright lights, and stunning opera house styled chandeliers that rise and fall while also giving the scenes an elegant glow.

The Great Comet is inspired by a seventy-page section of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which tells the story of a young Russian countess named Natasha (Denée Benton). Much to the dismay of Natasha’s godmother Marya D (Grace McLean), and her cousin Sonya (Brittain Ashford), Natasha enters a scandalous affair with a rebellious rogue named Anatole (a scene stealing Lucas Steele), while her fiancé Andrey (Nicholas Belton) is away at war. Also featured in the story is Pierre (Josh Groban), who is unhappily married to Anatole’s sister Hélène (Amber Gray). The cast acknowledges the plot’s confusing nature in the opening number, when they sing, “Everyone has nine different names”.

A family tree and a plot synopsis are also included in the program to help the audience better understand the narrative. The audience in this musical is a character in itself. The endlessly creative direction of Rachel Chavkin has the performers, who also double as the orchestra, constantly interacting and performing all over the theater. The opening moments of the performance include audience members getting handed pierogis by various cast members. This small gesture at the top of the show effectively establishes the relationship between the actors and the audience that is so vital to the show’s success.

The score by Dave Malloy, with excellent music direction by Or Matias, is an eclectic mix of traditional Russian styled folk music and modern pop and rock styled show tunes. Malloy even slips in some electronic music for the character of Anatole. The varied sung-through score is raucous and show-stopping in one moment, and extremely intimate in another. Some highlights in the score include the blissful “No One Else” (sung with incredible beauty by Denée Benton) , Josh Groban’s tour-de-force “Dust and Ashes,” and the act two showstopper “Balaga” led by the incredible Paul Pinto. The choreography by Sam Pinkleton in this number truly soars, and leaves the audience wanting more.

Josh Groban shines in an impressive Broadway debut as the wealthy but depressed Pierre. Pierre is stuck in a loveless marriage with his wife Hélène, and he just wants to be better. Pierre’s quest of self-fulfillment is at the heart of this musical, aided by Groban’s performance. Amber Gray is a stunner as the scheming Hélène. Her fabulous number “Charming” added a seductive and dangerous energy to the musical.

Lucas Steele as Anatole managed to seduce not just the character of Natasha, but the audience as well with his impressive voice and fierce swagger. Nick Choksi as Anatole’s right hand man Dolokhov, is thrillingly menacing. Their work together in the act two number “Preparations” is a delight to watch.

Gelsey Bell and Nicholas Belton offer knockout comedic performances as Princess Mary, and as her old crotchety father Prince Bolkonsky in the song” The Private and Intimate Life of the House.” Bell and Belton also offer memorable turns as an opera singer and as Natasha’s fiance Andrey.

Brittain Ashford as the quiet Sonya breaks the audience’s hearts with the achingly beautiful ballad Sonya Alone. Brittain Ashford and Gelsey Bell have been with The Great Comet since its first workshop in 2012 and it shows. Ashford’s performance as Sonia is greatly nuanced and touching. Denée Benton is a revelation as Natasha. Benton beautifully illustrates Natasha’s downward spiral, while still keeping the audience on her side. Another standout was Grace McLean as Natasha’s godmother, Marya D, whose intensity in her song “In My House” electrified the audience.

Last but certainly not least, the ensemble, sporting gorgeous costumes by Paloma Young, dazzled the audience with their endless energy and enthusiasm. The Great Comet, with its interactive atmosphere, and eclectic score, is truly unlike anything else on Broadway. The Great Comet is more than just a great musical, it’s a theatrical event, and one that should not be missed.

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