This weekend offers your last chance to see Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 in its wondrous Mimi Lien setting, elaborate and eccentric as a Fabergé egg, at the Imperial Theatre. Dave Malloy’s ambitious musical joins the ranks of misfires – Passing Strange and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson come to mind – that were passion projects derailed not so much by a misreading of the Broadway audience as by avoidable mistakes on the part of the producers and the creative team.
To be sure, there are worse tragedies than winning a couple of Tony awards and having a splashy run, no matter how short-lived, on Shubert Row. But blowing a $12-million-plus investment is not a good thing, and blaming “Broadway” itself is worse: For every Great Comet or Tale of Two Cities ($16 million) or Rocky (ditto), there’s an Avenue Q or Fun Home or even Book of Mormon (hardly a sure thing for the time-worn stereotype of the Broadway ticket buyer, the tired businessman dragged by his bored spouse).
Central to The Great Comet‘s charm was its cabaret DNA: It’s a sprawling show whose counter-intuitive intimate setting – getting back to the Fabergé egg analogy – made its oversize ambitions even more palpable. That’s why it was so great at tiny Ars Nova, where the show was born (and designed, based on Malloy’s inspiration from a Moscow night club), and in assorted tents around town.
The transformation of the Imperial Theater into an imperial wonderland was thrilling, but the show itself became diffuse, like a photo that looks terrific on your iPhone but is pixellated beyond recognition when blown up. Moreover, the weekly nut was ridiculous (much higher than what has been reported); and the box office depended on a star – Josh Groban – to do the work that merely modest word of mouth never could, i.e., make the show essential viewing. You’re in big trouble when press attention to your show is focused more on idiotic backstage disputes than raving critics (of which Great Comet had no shortage) and enthusiastic customers.
But I don’t want to overlook the show’s accomplishments, which includes introducing Broadway to an enormously gifted composer-lyricist and demonstrating once again that color conscious casting has nothing to do with political correctness and everything to do with reminding us that one role of art is in compelling us to look at the world with freshly opened eyes and ears.
Not long ago, you would have needed a brick of cash to see Michael Feinstein perform in his club at the Regency Hotel. Since partnering with the team behind 54 Below at the renamed Feinstein’s / 54 Below – where the tariff is lower, the food is better and the programming is far more engaging – he’s been a powerful force in keeping cabaret alive in New York, no small task.
This weekend also is your last chance to see Feinstein’s latest offering, which he calls “Show Stoppers.” Book a table after your visit to The Great Comet. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed. Why? Because Feinstein’s once reedy tenor has mellowed beautifully. Because no one knows the American songbook better, nor has as many great stories to attach to every number (though I wish he’d drop the Pia Zadora/Anne Frank story, which is a) completely untrue and b) tasteless). A trio led by the great Ted Firth accompanies him; the overture alone is worth the price of admission and will make you feel like a Broadway insider. Feinstein ranges across fare from standards (he dedicates Sondheim’s “Losing My Mind” to the late Barbara Cook) to novelties (the Louis Jordan/Billy Austin hit “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t (My Baby)?”).
Even more reason for catching this show is the chance to hear Betty Buckley, appearing as Feinstein’s special guest, in a sort-of a warm-up for her own gig coming next month to Joe’s Pub (October 12-15). Not only is La Buckley (recurring in the new season of Supergirl) in superb form (her unexpected duet with Feinstein on Lerner & Loewe’s “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face” is gorgeous), but Grizabella tells the best story ever about Cats and “Memory.” See for yourself.