In today’s Wall Street Journal drama column I review the Broadway transfer of Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, directed by Rachel Chavkin. Here’s an excerpt.
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Immersive theater is, we’re assured, the irresistible panacea that will inspire millennials to put down their smartphones and come charging into theaters at last…but what is it? As most people now use the phrase, immersive theater (which has actually been around forever—that’s how Harold Prince staged “Candide” on Broadway in 1974) jettisons the traditional actors-here-audience-there paradigm, replacing it with an in-your-face style in which the audience is invited to participate in the action of the show. Take “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,” Dave Malloy’s musical version of part of Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” which has moved to Broadway in a scaled-up version starring Josh Groban. To make it immersive, the Imperial Theatre, a 1,400-seat proscenium-arch house, has been transformed by Mimi Lien, the scenic designer, into a fancy-tacky Russian nightclub with onstage cabaret seating for 200 and a series of ramps that let the cast wander at will among the rest of the audience….
For all its explosive liveliness, Ms. Chavkin’s staging looks like a hopped-up concert version of a musical, not a bonafide Broadway show, and it serves mainly to paper over the essentially undramatic nature of “The Great Comet,” which feels less like an opera than a cantata—or, rather, a novel sung out loud. Large chunks of the unrhymed text come directly from Tolstoy’s book, and the characters spend most of their onstage time telling us what’s happening and how they feel about it instead of showing us. This impression is reinforced by Mr. Malloy’s songs, whose “tunes” are flattened-out non-melodies that exist only to carry the relentlessly wordy text and are superimposed on riffy vamps and short, oft-repeated harmonic cells. If that suggests minimalism, there’s a reason: Much of “The Great Comet” sounds quite a bit like what I imagine Philip Glass might have written had he decided to be a pop singer-songwriter, not a classical composer….
Minimalism mostly bores me, but there’s more than one way to write a show, and I freely acknowledge the extreme cleverness and originality of “The Great Comet.” I just wish it didn’t seem at least 45 minutes longer than it really is.
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Read the whole thing here.
“What Is the Comet,” a short documentary film about Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812: