Two highly anticipated shows gave early performances last weekend: the Broadway transfer of Dave Malloy’s musical Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, newly ensconced at the Imperial Theatre, and Tom Schulman’s stage version of his Oscar-winning screenplay for the 1989 film Dead Poets Society, at Off-Broadway’s Classic Stage Company.
Their opening moments reveal the two productions as antithetical in tone: Great Comet begins with prerecorded Russian pop streaming from the sound system while cast members caper up and down runways laid across the auditorium, cheerily welcoming the incoming spectators. Dead Poets Society, in total contrast, starts in ominous quiet, with its prep-school boy characters in their somber uniform blazers drifting onto the glossy stage floor, its back wall an enormous set of bookshelves complete with library ladder. While the Great Comet ensemble tosses the audience zakusky (Russian hors d’oeuvres) packaged in what look like miniature Chinese-takeout containers, Dead Poets Society‘s schoolboys huddle by twos and threes, occasionally glancing ominously at the audience as if expecting something punitive to happen.
A cynic might suspect at this point that I’ve set up this comparison in order to praise Dead Poets‘ stark, small-scale solemnity over the raucous extravagance of Great Comet. That just goes to show you how wrong a cynic can be. Small isn’t beautiful, it turns out, when there’s nothing behind it. And if you have the brazen gumption, as Malloy has, to adapt your musical from a gigantic work like Tolstoy’s War and Peace (see sidebar), you had better be prepared to give your audience a good sampling of its size and scope. You had also better be ready, as Malloy and his director, Rachel Chavkin, clearly are, to ease your audience’s fears of an epic-scale work, a hundred and fifty years old, famous mainly for almost nobody’s having read it all the way through.
Great Comet dramatizes only a slender fragment from the middle of Tolstoy’s huge novel — it literally takes place during the “and,” dodging the war and not extending into the peace that follows — but its songs dig deeply into its characters, while its spectacle displays their lives on a broad scale, giving it a genuinely Tolstoyan feel. If you like the idea of a big, bawdy, lively musical that leaves you haunted by the philosophical dilemma of its characters’ place in the universe, Great Comet is your kind of show.
Dead Poets Society, meanwhile, may not be anybody’s kind of show. It’s stiff, shallow, a little perfunctory — the stage seems to diminish the celebrated moments of Schulman’s screenplay. Partly, this is because they’re so strongly associated with the film’s beloved performances, most of all the infectious, quiet flamboyance of the late Robin Williams. Jason Sudeikis, following in Williams’s footsteps, seems like a man working very hard to make a borrowed suit of clothes look tailored to fit him. And while the rest of the actors in John Doyle’s tidy, modestly effective production aren’t bad, the magic they haven’t quite caught is readily available on YouTube.
The net effect, paradoxically, is that in the theater’s three dimensions, Schulman’s material reveals its essentially two-dimensional nature. The rebellious teacher’s facile nonconformist gestures — like having students rip an offending passage out of their textbooks — carry their own creepy conformity. The boys, a crisis apiece draped around their necks like cowbells, seem otherwise uncharacterized. The show’s most resonant performance comes from David Garrison as Mr. Nolan, the headmaster — dry, cautious, painfully eager to please everybody. As the events unreel mechanically, they start to evoke the story’s innumerable predecessors in depicting crises at single-sex schools; change the characters’ gender and Dead Poets Society could be retitled The Subprime of Miss Jean Brodie.
No such shadows loom over Great Comet, although War and Peace has been adapted for stage or film innumerable times. Malloy’s version focuses alternately on Pierre (Josh Groban), unhappily married and plagued by a drunken, will-less inertia, and on pretty, high-spirited Natasha (Denée Benton), getting her first taste of Moscow life while the capital runs crazy with war fever. In the absence of her soldier fiancé, Andrey (Nicholas Belton), away fighting, Natasha falls for the polished seducer Anatole Kuragin (Lucas Steele) and nearly elopes with him, but is stopped by her cousin Sonya (Brittain Ashford). This family crisis at last rouses Pierre — Kuragin’s brother-in-law — to action, just as the titular comet appears over Moscow.
Malloy and Chavkin, unceasingly inventive, explore this sliver of Tolstoy’s vast tale fully and expansively, with a glorious, free-ranging mixture of panache, tenderness, and common-sense directness that easily fills the Imperial’s lofty space. The chorus cheerfully defuses an American audience’s fear of alien customs, Slavic nomenclature, and elaborate nineteenth-century plotting by turning them into a sort of party game, although never at the expense of the story’s emotional depths. The lyrics, if occasionally prosy, bear the narrative weight through lines sometimes taken direct from Tolstoy-in-translation. Malloy’s music, a distinctively personal mix, blends Broadway and pop idioms not only with Russian folk tunes, as has been much noted, but with down-home American styles like country blues and subtle, highly sophisticated modernist effects. The soulful, single-note piano underscoring of Pierre and Natasha’s last scene could have come straight from Frederic Rzewski.
Chavkin and her team second this with soulful, strongly rooted performances, most commandingly from Groban, whose acting skills turn out to match his elegant and solid singing. Everyone’s excellent — Ashford and Steele deserve particular praise — but Groban’s Pierre, the lost man who finds himself, is a creation sure to linger in the memory; he gives this giant, swirling spectacle a core reason far beyond anything in most recent musicals. Ironically, where Dead Poets Society strives for a big ensemble finish that doesn’t come off, the quiet last moments of Great Comet, with Groban alone against the night sky, give the massive spectacle an intimacy that lingers in the mind. The bigger show, it turns out, is the more quietly real.
Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812
By Dave Malloy
Directed by Rachel Chavkin
249 West 45th Street
Dead Poets Society
By Tom Schulman
Directed by John Doyle
Classic Stage Company
136 East 13th Street
Through December 11