Dave Malloy's "Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812" is easily one of the best musical scores of the year. This is my first experience with the composer, but I'm already eagerly waiting to see what he'll do next. This "electro pop opera" based on a small portion of "War and Peace" is, to use the lofty words bandied about with emotional abandon by its nineteenth century Russian characters, completely "intoxicating."
In a way, the term "electro pop" (which I've seen used to describe the show in several places) is both accurate and reductive. This is not your usual "pop opera" in the way that say, "Les Miserables" and other period pop shows, mainly from Europe and from the 1980s, are usually described. There are surely pop sounds and also electronica, used to thrilling effect as the aristocratic Natasha (Phillipa Soo) falls under the erotic spell of the superficial Anatole (Lucas Steele), despite being engaged to Andrey, who remains mainly offstage fighting the French. But there is, just as much I'd say, influences of classical and traditional Broadway, as well as (of course!) Russian folk music. The score is eclectic, surprising, and quite brilliant--as the best musicals are--in illustrating and amplifying the characters' emotions.
Another key element to "Great Comet"s originality are the lyrics. Purists will notice right away the absence of consistent rhyme schemes. Now I would not ordinarily advocate that musical composers shun rhymes, but based on the evidence here, maybe it's not always as important as it seems. Somehow it has enabled Malloy to dig deep into the characters' emotional states in ways that seem truer than you sometimes get when lyricists are trying to cover plot and character and also contrive a perfect rhyme. Also, as in every sung-through musical (and opera), Malloy employs recitative (sung dialogue) and exposition; in less adept hands this can land with an over-obvious thud, but here it's infused with a knowing intelligence and wit that consistently tickles the ear. The way the characters reveal their feelings and also step outside the action to describe their actions is sometimes gently satirical about musical theater and 19th century literary conventions, but at the same time also expands the characters' authenticity. Instead of distancing the audience, it seems to bring us in closer. It's quite a marvel of musical storytelling--I'm still trying to figure out how Malloy pulls it off so well.
Surely, one can't give short shrift to the contributions of the cast, which also includes Malloy as the eponymous Pierre, who appears only tangentially related to Natasha's story for most of the recording, before contributing to the show's very moving finale. Soo is wonderful throughout as Natasha, conveying a powerful voice coupled with a vulnerability that makes her eminently likable. Amber Gray is also a standout as Anatole's sister Helene, whose performance of "Charming" is a highlight in a score full of highlights. A