Anastasia Journeys to Broadway
The story of the long-lost Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanov has tickled minds for decades. Indeed, the bloody Russian Revolution, the elimination of Tsar Nicholas and his entire family, and the rumor that the youngest Romanov somehow survived has spawned many books, films, and stage productions. This particular Broadway production is based partly on the 1956 Ingrid Bergman film and partly on the widely-popular 1997 animated film of the same name. Anastasia will delight fans of the animated film and enchant others coming to the story for the first time.
The story begins in Imperial Russia when Anastasia is just a child. Her grandmother, the Dowager Empress (Mary Beth Peil), is leaving for Paris so she leaves Anastasia with a farewell gift. It’s a music box that plays, of course, their shared lullaby “Once Upon a December.” After the Dowager Empress departs, we see a montage of several balls over many years; at the end, we see the Romanov family rounded up and led to their deadly fate.
Years later, in the newly names Soviet Russia, we meet Dmitry (Derek Klena) and Vlad (John Bolton), two con men itching to escape a poor Russia where your neighbors might very well be spies. They hatch a plan to find a girl who can pretend she is the long-lost Anastasia so they can get to Paris and collect reward money from the Dowager Empress who hopes the rumors about her granddaughter are true. When Dmitry and Vlad meet an amnesiac street sweeper named Anya (Christy Altomare), it appears their plan is on track. They convince her that she is the Grand Duchess. They help her learn royal manners and royal history in a very fun scene reminiscent of My Fair Lady (“If I Can Learn to Do It”). When Gleb (Ramin Karimloo), a Soviet officer, gets wind of what they are doing, he brings Anya in to warn her to stop with her silly notions of Anastasia—or there will be dire consequences.
So, Anya, Dmitry, and Vlad quickly escape to Paris. There, they must get past the Dowager Empress’s lady, Countess Lily (Caroline O’Connor), before they can convince the Dowager that Anya is really Anastasia. Little do they know that Gleb is hot on their heels (and slightly infatuated with Anya) and that the Dowager Empress has recently declared that she is done searching for Anastasia. She will not meet any other young lady claiming to be her. One more piece of the story: Dmitry and Anya have fallen in love. Naturally, Anya will have to choose between the royal title, if the Dowager recognizes her, and love.
When this was staged at the Hartford Stage in Connecticut last year, there were, we shared, some kinks to still be worked out. It is evident that some things have been smoothed out on Broadway. Gleb’s character has filled out a little bit. Indeed, there is a new song for him entitled, “Still.” However, his appearances throughout the second act still could have been bulked up.
Also, the larger Broadway stage has allowed for larger and more elaborate sets which have greatly benefited the show. At times the digital video projections on the set look a little out of place with the other set pieces. During some scenes, though, the digital effect is helpful (the train ride and the ride to the top of the Eiffel Tower, for instance). The costumes by Linda Cho are still dazzling. The extravagant ballgowns Anya wears are particularly sumptuous. Additionally, the glittering dresses from the Imperial court are stunning.
The music by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens is, overall, fine. A few songs stand out from the rest. Some of which are the catchy movie tunes that many are familiar with and some are new to the stage. “Journey to the Past” garnered audible squeals from the younger audience members when Christy Altomare sang it. The haunting and achingly sad “Stay, I Pray You,” is just as emotional and memorable as it was at Hartford. Another favorite is “In a Crowd of Thousands” which is really the only romantic duet between Dmitry and Anya.
Finally, the performances are all pretty solid. Although Dmitry’s backstory in this production is not quite as alluring as the one in the film (where he is a former kitchen boy who helps Anastasia to safety), Derek Klena channels a boyish charm to make tween audience members swoon. Playing the not-quite-villanous villain, the suave Ramin Karimloo belts his songs like no other and does a good job of showing Gleb’s struggle between head and heart. John Bolton and Caroline O’Connor are wonderful comic relief actors in the production. Indeed, O’Connor’s “Land of Yesterday” is a terrific high energy, foot-tapping performance. Mary Beth Peil is perfectly cast and has an air of grace and regality that you don’t find in every actor. Christy Altomare does a good job of walking the line between being a vulnerable young girl who has survived a large trauma and a spunky young girl discovering who she is and what she wants.
And that, really, is what Anastasia is all about: discovering who you are. As the Dowager Empress says, “You can’t be anyone unless you recognize yourself.”
Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy