Last night I had the pleasure of seeing The Great Comet, a musical, currently in previews (opening night November 14th), adapted from Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. It stars Josh Groban and Denée Benton as Pierre and Natasha, respectively, and it was absolutely thrilling.
I would classify it as an opera, though there is one spoken line, it was definitely spoken to draw attention to it as the crux of the show. Anyone who has read War and Peace probably already knows most of the plot, but for those who haven’t (probably the large majority of people reading this) I’ll keep the spoilers to myself. As operas typically do, it has some stunning vocal performances and a few notes scattered throughout held for quite some time for emphasis, as well as one notable (and probably unnecessary) run of huge range from Lucas Steele as Anatole, though that does fit in with his character’s theme of being unnecessarily showy. Overall, the vocal performances were solid, with the exception of Denée Benton, who was absolutely mind-blowing.
You can’t talk about The Great Comet without mentioning the stage setup. Rather than the traditional stage in front of an audience, this show is set up with plenty of seating on the stage, behind the stage, and even in the orchestra pit. It provides a very unique interactive experience for the viewers, who, on stage, are sat around small tables which the actors frequently use in scenes. They even had audience members help pass props around at certain points. But it didn’t stop there. The entire theater became the stage. I was seated in the front row of the balcony, and I constantly had actors and dancers within an arm’s reach. In the second act, they passed out egg shakers for us to help accompany the orchestra! We got to keep the shakers too, I was ecstatic, though admittedly, I am a sucker for audience interaction. I’ll upload a picture of the shaker when I get home tonight.
The stage setup provided an experience like none other, but not just for the audience interaction. The orchestra added more to the show than just music. They were constantly playing in the aisles, were dressed in full costume, and were definitely getting into the music (or were pretty good actors themselves) by grooving along with head nods and shoulder sways. Speaking of the music, it was very atypical for an opera. I would almost classify it as grunge opera. Definitely a very modern twist, lots of heavy beats, and seems to be a bit inspired by Hamilton’s success with hip-hop/R&B music. Not really rapping (though some lines could be classified as rapping I think), but definitely very unique and entertaining.
The action was constant, and everywhere. At one point my girlfriend remarked that she didn’t know where to look, and I said that it really didn’t matter, because it didn’t. The dancers were everywhere you looked, usually in pairs, doing the same routine, so no matter where you looked you weren’t missing anything. There is the drawback that being constantly surrounded by action means it’s a bit harder to follow the main characters, and sometimes you get swept up in the action and miss a piece of the story, but honestly, it’s a small price to pay for the unique experience and genius of the set. Also, for an adaptation of War and Peace (or rather, an adaptation of a section of it), the story was surprisingly easy to follow thanks to the unique, funny, and very clever character introduction (listen to the Prologue to see what I mean).
The whole show felt like one big party, intertwined with some very heavy emotional scenes. On the party note, the song “The Duel” turns into a giant rave scene, complete with strobe lights, neon glow sticks, and LED strips on dancers’ shoes. It was honestly one of the most entertaining things I’ve ever seen on Broadway, though it definitely makes this show not appropriate for anyone with epilepsy. The strobe lights were VERY intense. It very much felt like a legitimate rave. Well, that is if legitimate raves featured dueling accordions.
Overall, this was one of the most fun shows I’ve seen on Broadway, probably second only to Book of Mormon, which was more funny rather than fun. If this show finds success, which I very much think it could and should, it may usher in a new style of musicals with a party-like atmosphere, catered to a younger audience. We’re already seeing musicals catered to younger people with Hamilton being the smash hit that it is, this is another step along the path to a youth takeover of Broadway.
I’ll end with scores for Tony Award categories:
Best musical: 9/10
Best lead actor: 8.5/10
Best lead actress: 10/10 (I think Denée Benton wins best lead actress this year)
Best direction: 9/10
Best original score: 10/10
Best choreography: 9/10
Best costume design: 9/10
Best lighting design: 10/10
Best orchestration: 9/10
Overall score: 9.5/10 – A must-see