NEW YORK — Josh Groban — he of the mellifluous lung power so dynamic it could lift a tall ship’s sails — is the marquee attraction of “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812,” the vivacious new musical that had its official opening Monday night at the Imperial Theatre. And as it turns out, he’s neither an overbearing blowhard nor a star adrift. Rather, Groban proves to be a thoroughly winning team player in an offbeat pop opera that is ultimately more memorable for technical dexterity than emotional texture.
The multiple diversions dreamed up by director Rachel Chavkin and her designers — which include transforming the Imperial into a luxe Russian nightclub, complete with bar tops and banquettes — ensure that “Natasha, Pierre” is a high-energy blast, with an admirable focus on keeping its somewhat arcane story moving. (It’s based on a melancholy romantic interlude in Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.”) Dave Malloy’s divinely eclectic score, driven by dance beats and peppered with singer-songwriter-style ballads, gives a gallery of featured performers in a teeming cast, about 30 strong, a vibrant showcase for their dramatic and vocal abilities.
That Groban doesn’t need to dominate the proceedings testifies to a guy with acting chops and an ego in check. Ideally, though, “Natasha, Pierre” would provide him one additional bravura moment, something to top his Act 1 musical lamentation, “Dust and Ashes.” His Pierre, padded for corpulence and coping with a philandering wife and other relatives and acquaintances who prey on his haplessness, is a model of forbearance; would that Groban — and the audience — were rewarded with a number that gave him, in his Broadway debut, a chance to really let go.
Not that “Natasha, Pierre” assiduously holds back in other ways. Chavkin and her creative team, including an ingenious set designer, Mimi Lien, and a dazzlingly meticulous costume designer, Paloma Young, ensure that audiences experience events as if unfolding quite literally before their eyes. Scenes occur on a walkway in the balcony and on a specially added aisle that meanders, riverlike, through the middle of the orchestra seats. Onstage, other theatergoers sit on tiers, at tables and along dark red banquettes. The challenge met by the exemplary choreographer Sam Pinkleton is the devising of lavish production numbers, set at an opera and a costume ball, that have dancers dashing up and down stairs, to every corner of the theater. Rarely has the voguish notion of environmental theater been used to create such a complete environment.
One of the evening’s notable heroes is the lighting designer, Bradley King, who here treats illumination not as a decorative accessory but as a pivotal narrative element. Glistening chandeliers and single light bulbs suspended on wires ascend to reinforce the illusion of constellations flickering in the night skies. Tulip-shaped lighting fixtures on bistro tables interspersed throughout the space pulsate on and off to the beat of Malloy’s buoyant music.
As for the narrative itself, well, “Natasha, Pierre” is a vehicle built for style more than durable storytelling. The spine of this particular tale concerns the wooing of Natasha (the bewitching Denee Benton) away from Pierre’s best friend Andrey (Nicholas Belton), while he’s on military maneuvers, by the impossibly blonde scoundrel, Anatole. He’s played by Lucas Steele, whose expert singing and preening will inevitably result in his being cast as Sir Lancelot in a revival of “Camelot.” Poor Pierre sits on the sidelines — well actually, in a pit at center stage also occupied by conductor/pianist Or Matias — contemplating the trysts being engaged in by his wife Helene (the wonderful Amber Gray). Various other crucial secondary characters, like those played by sultry-voiced Brittain Ashford and suitably sullen Gelsey Bell, wander in and out to brood, remonstrate or suffer in reliably Russian fashion.
The show has some winking fun with the labyrinthine nature of the novel. The prologue turns the introduction of the myriad characters into a game of sorts; the number reduces each of them to a single identifying adjective, as if it’s a song taught in nursery school. And though Malloy and Chavkin sacrifice some clarity for the sake of sleekness, there is a synopsis in the Playbill, and even one of those explanatory charts, diagramming the characters’ relationships. But don’t get too hung up on all the whys and wherefores. Just go along — amused and immersed — for the sleigh ride.
Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, music, lyrics, book and orchestrations by Dave Malloy. Directed by Rachel Chavkin. Choreography, Sam Pinkleton; set, Mimi Lien; costumes, Paloma Young; lighting, Bradley King; sound, Nicholas Pope; music supervision, Sonny Paladino. With Nick Choksi, Grace McLean, Paul Pinto, Reed Luplau, Ani Taj. About 2 1/2 hours. Tickets, $59-$299. At Imperial Theatre, 249 W. 45th St., New York. Visit telecharge.com or call 212-239-6200.