Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Broadway Theater Reviews: Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 and In Transit

Josh Groban and Denee Benton. Photo: Chad Batka
New Year Brings New and Exciting Shows to Broadway
By Lauren Yarger
You heard me chat about these two musicals on the radio when they opened last fall, but a new year has rolled in and Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 and In Transit are still two of the most new and innovative shows to grace the Broadway stage in 2017.

Comet has given pop music star Josh Groban a chance to make his Broadway debut and he has extended his run through July 2. The star casting isn't anything new in itself-- Broadway producers seem more and more convinced (thanks to corresponding ticket sales) that shows can't succeed on the Great White Way any more unless they have a big name on the marquee.  Groban has delivered
with full houses at the Imperial Theatre each week.

What's interesting about this celebrity casting, however, is that Groban's role isn't what we would think of as the star. It's a prominent role, but in scope of things, the popular singer, who first came to attention on the TV show Ally McBeal, doesn't get a lot of solos or opportunities to wow with rich baritone (though one ballad. "Dust and Ashes" -- see video below-- has become the tune associated with the show). The show won the 2013 Richard Rodgers Award for Musical Theatre and the Off-Broadway version received numerous nominations.

In another innovative twist, the show is inviting fans to join composer Dave Malloy and members of the cast to sing group chorus sections and to play the show's famous egg shakers for the original Broadway cast recording. This special fan recording session will take place in midtown Manhattan on Monday, Feb. 13 from 6 to 7:30 pm. No purchase is necessary – to sign up, and receive the exact location visit 
www.greatcometbroadway.com/castrecording.


Meanwhile, over at Circle in the Square, In Transit, with music by a team including the creators of "Pitch Perfect" and "Frozen," is Broadway's first a cappella musical. There is some unique staging by one of my favorite set designers, Donyale Werle, to create the subway world of New York.
The ensemble includes Broadway vets Margo Seibert and Telly Leung, but doesn't include a Hollywood name -- except maybe for composer Kristen Anderson-Lopez whom you know even if you don't know her name. She is the one who brought you "Let it Go" from the animated film "Frozen," sung by Idina Menzel.

At any rate these two musicals offer something different and that is always exciting on Broadway stages. See below for more specifics.






Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812
By Dave Malloy, based on part of "War and Peace" by Leo Tolstoy
Directed by Rachel Chavkin
The Imperial Theatre

What's It All About?
Russian music plays as audience members take in the fact that the whole theater seems to be a stage and they are on it. Audience members actually sit on the stage and platforms bring actors out into the house. You're not safe from interaction up in the mezzanine either, as stairs provide access there from the stage. You might be handed a rattling egg to shake during a musical number or a pirogi to snack on. You also might find yourself being nuzzled by Anatole (this was my personal experience while seated on stage).

The story, taken from a couple of chapters of Tolstoy's epic novel, follows the scandalous romance of Natasha (Denée Benton , also making her Broadway debut) and womanizer Anatole (Lucas Steele, reprising the role for which he won a Lucille Lortel Award) just before Napoleon's invasion of Russia. Groban is Pierre, an outcast, disillusioned aristocrat, unhappily married to Anatole's sister, Hélène (Amber Gray).

What Are the Highlights?
The music. Very different and varied. The opening number which introduces all of the characters in a fun and repetitive catchy tune actually sets the story and makes it much easier to keep track of who all these people are and what their relationships are to each other: 
"This is a complicated Russian novel; everyone has nine different names.... Hélène is a slut; Anatole is hot; Marya is old school; Sonya is good; Natasha is young; And Andrey isn’t here."
There also is a very helpful family tree in your Playbill and in the song they tell you it's a good idea to get that out and follow along....

Director Rachel Chavkin distinguishes herself as one of the upcoming directors on stage (this one stunningly created by Mimi Lien who partners with Costume Designer Paloma Young to bring 19th-Century Russia to life.) You can't imagine how completely Chavkin shatters the fourth wall here without experiencing it for yourself. While I felt the chaos was a bit too much for me in places, the sheer genius of creating the scene still impressed.
Small moments also aren't lost in the midst of putting the huge ensemble through what must be a grueling workout (choreography is by Sam Pinkleton). In one scene, for example, snow falls directly on one character instead of on the whole stage, or on the whole theater, which is what we might be expecting given the scope of the interactive commotion taking place. The result is a moving moment that might otherwise have been lost.

Similar effects are achieved through expert Lighting Design by Bradley King. Bright lights and solo highlights mix nicely.

The highlight for me personally is "Sonya Alone," a haunting ballad of loyalty sing by Natasha's betrayed and abandoned friend, Sonya (an excellent Brittain Ashford). Goosbumps.
"I will stand in the dark for you. I will hold you up by force. I will stand here right outside your door. I won't see you disgraced."

What Are the Lowlights?
It's a sensory overload. It's like having a video game explode all around you. I have seen this show three times-- once Off-Broadway in the intimate tent setting -- and twice on Broadway, once on stage and once in the house. The orchestra seat provided a little less interaction, which I preferred, but the seat on stage provided the best vantage point to take in everything that was happening.

At two and a half hours, it's way too long (but then again, we are talking "War and Peace....") I didn't think the energy level could get any higher, but the second act blew it off the charts. It's just a lot to take in. If you have ADD, this probably isn't the show for you.

Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 plays at the Imperial Theatre, 249 West 45th St., NYC. greatcometbroadway.com.

Additional casting:
Sonya,’ Gelsey Bell as Mary, Nicholas Belton as Andrey/Bolkonsky, Nick Choksi as Dolokhov, Grace McLean as Marya D, Paul Pinto as Balaga.The ensemble includes Sumayya Ali, Courtney Bassett, Josh Canfield, Ken Clark, Erica Dorfler, Lulu Fall, Ashley Pérez Flanagan, Paloma Garcia-Lee, Nick Gaswirth, Alex Gibson, Billy Joe Kiessling, Mary Spencer Knapp, Reed Luplau, Brandt Martinez, Andrew Mayer, Azudi Onyejekwe, Pearl Rhein, Heath Saunders, Ani Taj, Cathryn Wake, Katrina Yaukey, and Lauren Zakrin.

Additional creatives:
Sound Design by Nicholas Pope, Music Supervision by Sonny Paladino, Musical Direction by Or Matias.

FAMILY-FRIENDLY FACTORS
-- No specific notes, but I would say this story probably is for 12 and up.




CLOSING APRIL 16

In Transit
Book, music and lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez, James-Allen Ford, Russ Kaplan and Sara Wordsworth
Directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall

What's It All About?
It's a ride -- literally -- through life, career and family. The story follows the intertwined lives of 11 New Yorkers.
Seibert plays Jane, a wanna-be actress who is stuck in office jobs waiting for her big break. Leung plays the boyfriend of Jane's agent, Trent (Justin Guarini), who is unable to reveal to his fundamentally religious mother (Moya Angela) that Steven is more than just his roommate. Nate (James Snyder) is a down-on-his-luck businessman who also is down to his last dollar, which won't even buy him a metro card. His sister, Ali (Erin Mackey), has just been dumped by the guy for whom she moved to New York.  

There are some other stories in there and a few smaller roles, like an unhelpful ticket agent, that are amusing. The things that make this show different are the set, which allows us to feel like we're on a subway car, and the a cappella score.

What Are the Highlights?
That set. It transforms from a subway station to a church. A people-mover conveyor belt provides the train motion.

This one clocks in at about 90 minutes with no intermission. I found it likable with humor for those of us who brave New York City transit.

Group a cappella numbers are so strong that it makes it easy to forget there are no musical instruments playing (Music Supervision by Rick Hip-Flores).

What Are the Lowlights:
The book is fairly predictable. 

The a cappella arrangements (by Deke Sharon) sometimes make it very difficult to hear the lyrics.

In Transit rides at Circle in the Square Theatre, 235 West 50th St,. NYC. InTransitBroadway.com,

Additional credits:
Costume Design by Clint Ramos, Lighting Design by Donald Holderand, Sound Design by Ken Travis. 

Additional cast:
David Abeles, Steven “HeaveN” Cantor, Gerianne Pérez, Chesney Snow, Mariand Torres and Nicholas Ward.

FAMILY-FRIENDLY FACTORS:
-- Language
-- God's name taken in vain
-- Homosexuality
-- Homosexual activity


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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the 2000 Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at http://reflectionsinthelight.blogspot.com/.

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (http://ctarts.blogspot.com), an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for BroadwayWorld.com and is a theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer. She previously served as Connecticut theater editor for CurtainUp.com and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She is a freelance writer and playwright and member of The Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association and The League of Professional Theatre Women. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists. She also is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle and the CT Press Club.

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.

Copyright

All material is copyright 2008- 2017 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact reflectionsinthelight@gmail.com

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Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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