It’s as though everyone in the Imperial Theater is crying.
The stifled sobs are audible and it’s obvious the audience is choking back tears as the final Broadway run of “Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812” comes to a close. Dave Malloy, the writer of the show and our Pierre for the evening, and Denée Benton, opposite him as Natasha, aren’t faring much better. She moves toward him to sing her last solo and her voice trembles as she, after a lengthy pause, sings, “I leave the room, smiling.” Malloy audibly sniffs and soldiers on to close the show altogether, Benton’s final moment allowing the audience to move along with him. His finale number winds down, the magnificent, spired chandelier lowers to represent the Comet burning at its brightest, and as its light fades, so does this glorious show.
And then it’s over. Just like that, the lifespan of this production is cut short and there is nothing left but to watch the cast tearfully embrace while the thunderous applause of a house full of theatergoers rains down on them.
Doing a review of “The Great Comet” is somewhat redundant given its final Broadway performance on Sept. 3, but if you know anything about it or have seen it for yourself, you know it bears mentioning. With the most Tony nominations of this past season as according to Variety, “Great Comet” has made a name for itself as a diverse, somewhat strange, but incredibly innovative musical. Created from a seventy-page sliver of Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” the story revolves around Natasha Rostova’s whirlwind, illicit romance with the notorious playboy Anatole Kuragin, despite her engagement to a prince off serving in the war against Napoleon. The story of Pierre Bezukhov runs parallel to that of Natasha’s, exploring his discontent with his life, his search for personal meaning, and his depression and alcoholism. Similar to shows like “Les Misérables” or “Hamilton,” the show is entirely sung through, and combines a variety of musical genres such as soul, electronic dance music, pop, classic ballads, Broadway showstoppers and traditional Russian folk songs complete with accordions and wailing violins.
I’ve been enraptured by the play since I heard the beginning strains of the accordion in the prologue. Seeing “Great Comet” live, however, is a whole other experience. Even though I was seated in the mezzanine, looking down on the action on stage, a surprising amount of the performance took place in the aisle right next to me. During one of the high-energy dance numbers, a dancer on the stairs next to me kicked her leg up so high it came inches from my face. At a different moment during this same number, Brittain Ashford, who played Sonya, one of the leads of the show, came to pass out egg shakers for the audience to rattle, and though she had nothing to give me by the time she reached my row, she still grabbed my hand and we sang along to the verses together for a moment. There were entire intricate dance sequences and choral parts sung in the main aisle in front of us, with violinists running to-and-fro, and mini dance battles popping up on the catwalk running through the center of the mezzanine.
To finally get at the meat of the show, there are few words to describe how unique and beautiful this musical was. If it’s possible, some of the performers sounded better live than on the official cast recording, such as the aforementioned Benton, Lucas Steele (Anatole), Amber Gray (Hélène) and Grace McLean (Marya). Benton brought me to tears at the sweet sincerity of “No One Else,” the ringing clarity of her voice was exquisite as she sang to us all. Steele’s words resounded with pomp and strength, the cockiness of Anatole apparent in his movements. The vivacious and jazz-infused voice of Gray made her character, Hélène, a focal point of the show, and her song “Charming” garnered a huge applause. McLean was the clear showstopper of the performance, her strong drawling voice drawing laughs and excited applause throughout the entirety of the run.
There is so much more I could say about this show. How the ensemble is the soul of it, running everywhere at once, playing instruments and doing acrobatics and transforming from club goers dressed in scant neon outfits to soldiers and countesses attending an opera. How Dave Malloy, the creator and writer of this show, poured his love and genius into Tolstoy’s masterpiece and worked tirelessly on it for five years so that we all may enjoy it. How everything about the theater, down to the rich red drapes, the ornate mirrors and oil paintings on the stage, the golden and scarlet color scheme, takes you out of New York City and immerses you into “Great Comet”’s world.
One of my favorite lines in the show is in the beautiful song “Dust and Ashes,” and it goes, “They say we are asleep until we fall in love…but when we fall in love we wake up, and we are a god and angels weep.” If the premise of those lines are correct, what I saw on Sunday woke me up. Though this show has now closed, I’ll never forget what I got to witness at the Imperial, which was a celebration of innovative, diverse and powerful theater. “Great Comet” was fueled by a brilliant cast who gave their hearts and souls to this production, and whose energy and vibrancy I’ll never forget. “Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812” is worth remembering if for just that alone, so if you do anything else today, go give it a listen on Spotify. I hope you wake up.