Can you believe that schlump is handsome rock star Josh Groban???
How to describe what is certainly one of the best musical theater experiences I’ll ever have in my life? There are no words. Only superlatives, and they can’t even begin to do justice to the transformative, shocking, heart-breaking, bravura performance Josh Groban gives in the pop-opera “Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comic of 1812” now on Broadway at the Imperial Theater. The Imperial is the former home to “Les Miserables” which ran there for decades, and I’m predicting this will, too.
Josh Groban will win Best Actor in a Musical and every other Tony in the book. Move over “Hamilton;” there’s a new masterpiece in town! ( And it’s right next door to “Hamilton” too! )”Natasha, Pierre...” is a tiny sliver of Leo Tolstoy’s 1000 page epic Russian novel “War and Peace” and is as unlikely a musical comedy blockbuster as “Hamilton.” The war that’s “going on out there somewhere” is the Napoleonic War against Russia. But in Moscow, the decadent aristocracy is partying like it’s 2016.
They sing “Chandeliers and caviar! The war can’t touch us here!” But, of course, it can. It is led by Napoleon. And, as it gets closer and closer, the aristocrats & the party crowd are becoming more and more frantic.
Those who’ve been following the career of pop-star Josh Groban will be stunned by the absolute 360 he’s done with “Natasha, Pierre…” which is as innovative and spectacular a musical, and risky, too, as the astounding performance Groban gives in it. You see, “Natasha, Pierre…” is not your ordinary musical comedy. It’s hardly a comedy at all. You do feel like you’ve been in the midst of a drunken Russian party that turned into a wild, thumping troika ride.
As a handsome young man, who is now unbelievably only 35, one did wonder what Groban, a brilliant musician, lyricist and composer as well as a platinum selling recording artist with four world tours and seven albums under his belt, and millions of fans to boot, would do with this role, his first time on a Broadway stage. Sexy, and angelic at the same time, one wondered what he was going to do, when his teenaged good looks and youth appeal began to wear off. Not that it has, but Groban was open-minded and daring enough to take on the completely incongruous and daunting role of Pierre Bezukov, Tolstoy’s depressive, over-weight, bespectacled alter-ego in “War and Peace.” It’s proving to be the role of his career.
At first entrance, flanked by a blinding bank of rock star lighting ( by Mimi Lien, whose contribution is inestimable), Groban enters as Pierre with an accordion, then makes his way almost lumbering way to center stage, down several stair cases (director Rachel Chavkin has carved up the Imperial into a brand-new, almost intimate cabaret-like space and puts the audience onstage, too!) and you think that middle-aged, almost-fat man CAN’T be Josh Groban, but it is!
Heavily bearded with long-grown out, almost greasy, dark, curly locks, he looks nothing like any iteration we’ve seen of Josh Groban before. He’s almost unrecognizable! He’s totally transmogrified himself into this hulking Russian bear of a character, but that’s exactly what Tolstoy wrote his hero. He’s the symbol of pre-Napoleonic Russian aristocracy.
He’s depressive. He’s unattractive and he drinks and drinks and drinks.
“I drink and read and drink and read and drink,” he sings in a confused clarion of voice that is less than happy about this inactive plight.
He’s married to a completely inappropriate wife, the witchily attractive Helene, who is referred to in the opening number simply as “Helene’s a slut.” Amber Gray plays Helene with exactly the right blend of nastiness, sexuality and charm, as she sashays her way through the night seductively telling our heroine, the virginal Natasha (Denee Benton) that she is “Charmante, Charmante.” She is hissing at her like she was Cleopatra’s asp.Her brother, who turns out to be a dastard of the first water, Anatole, is portrayed with a devil-ish blend of blond good looks, rock star pompadour hair, and VERY tight military pants by Lucas Steele. “Anatole’s hot” the opening chorus sings. And who are we to disagree?He’s out to elope, or basically kidnap, Natasha. He’s already married and clearly an irresistible and untrustworthy slime-ball. Anatole’s seduction of Natasha, who thinks he’s going to marry her, forms the plot that is as wildly complicated as the novel itself. But don’t be scared of Tolstoy. You can follow him.
Dave Malloy, who I saw play Pierre originally three years ago, wrote the music, lyrics and adaptation. It is all sung-through, so yes, it is indeed an opera, but it’s only a tiny sliver of Tolstoy. Volume 2, Part 5, to be exact. I saw it first in a circus tent in the Meatpacking District of the West Village, where they served a Russian meal to you while seated at cabaret tables (see above.) It was dazzling, even then.
Phillipa Soo was astounding as Natasha, and went on to become a Broadway star as Eliza Hamilton in “Hamilton.” But Denee Benton, who plays Natasha now, just glows and glows and grows on you, too, the absolute picture of willful innocence and stubbornness as she falls in love with, then insists on her ill-advised elopement with bad boy Anatole.
A core of miraculously agile, vocally and physically, actors continued with the show from the tent they called Kazino, to Broadway, including Amber Gray, Brittain Ashford and Grace McLean. In that cast I first saw, Josh Canfield was a sexy Anatole, before is “Survivor: San Juan del Sur” fame. He was equally charismatic as Anatole.
But it’s Groban that kicks this show upstairs and into theatrical history with his astonishing performance and perfect voice. To hear someone who has been called a choir boy for years with his perfect pitch and miraculous lyric baritone, tear into the gutsy, difficult, challenging, sometimes discordant vocals of “Natasha, Pierre…” is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Drunken, depressed, over-weight, near-sighted and scruffy though his Pierre convincingly is, his golden tones ring out in the night(and twice weekly at matinees.) His respect for the other actors is evident as he also blends seamlessly into their tight ensemble.
Josh Groban, genius that he is, has perspicaciously plunged himself into the midst of an equally amazing group of fellow-artists, who are geniuses, too, in their own ways. Did I mention Mimi Lien’s lighting? She’s the recipient of a MacArthur Genius grant. So it’s official. And of course, there’s a killer solo that composer Malloy newly wrote just for Groban that they call “Dust and Ashes”, but I would call “This is how I die?” as Pierre berates himself for his intellectual inaction as “there’s a war going on out there somewhere.” The show is bracketed by another tour de force Groban soul-searching solo called “The Great Comet” as the grand Grande Finale.
I’ve seen “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” three times now and I can’t wait to see it again!
Groban has committed an entire year to staying in this historic production and helping it thrive. It’s been making a million dollars a week! Long may it run!
# Broadway musicals