Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩
Daily headlines in US political news continue to ponder the Russian interference in last fall’s presidential election, but what about Russian influence over Broadway? Anastasia, the lavishly engaging new musical that has just opened on Broadway, is the second tuner of the season to take us to the land of the Kremlin.
The first was Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, a rendering of a small slice of Tolstoy’s War and Peace which opened in the fall and continues to dazzle audiences.
And when you count the straight play The Present – in which a reworking of a Chekhov script had Cate Blanchett and a passel of fellow Aussies depicting post-Soviet denizens in turmoil – Anastasia is the third Russian-themed show to hit the Main Stem this season.
What’s going on? Probably nothing as insidious as the election brouhaha. It’s probably just the fact that stories about Russia, with its outsized personalities and chaotic history, can make great theatre. (The 2015 musical adaptation of Doctor Zhivago being an exception, of course.) And when it comes to musical formats, Anastasia is about as different from The Great Comet as it can be. Comet takes a wild, avant-garde approach to its Tolstoy material.
Anastasia is hardly as groundbreaking. It features a classic-sounding score by composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens that goes from Tchaikovsky-type lushness (there’s even a hefty sampling of Swan Lake) to jaunty Charleston-type dance numbers. The book by celebrated playwright Terrence McNally moves ahead in straightforward linear fashion.
The show, as if you didn’t already know, spins a tale of one of the many women who claimed to be Anastasia, the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, who with his wife and children was brutally executed by Russian revolutionaries in 1917. After the execution, rumours spread that Anastasia had somehow survived.
It’s an oft-told story, but the book, the score and the imaginative staging by director Darko Tresnjak of an appealing cast tell it with infectious enthusiasm.
This time around, the heroine is an amnesiac street sweeper in Leningrad, formerly St. Petersburg, who calls herself Anya. She gets connected with two roguish fellows, the dreamboat Dmitry and the older raffish Vlad, who scheme to pass her off as the princess to Anastasia’s grandmother, the Dowager Empress Maria, living in Paris.
By the final curtain and after an emotional meeting with the Dowager, we’re pretty sure that Anya is indeed Anastasia. But more importantly, she has found true love with Dmitry.
Christy Altomare is a petite Anya with a powerhouse of a voice. She gives the character earnestness as well as vivacity.
Derek Klena’s Dmitry boasts a youthful machismo, while John Bolton’s Vlad is a winningly whimsical scoundrel, especially when he meets up with his old paramour, the Countess Lily, the Dowager’s lady-in-waiting. Lily is played with grand comic verve and song-and-dance dexterity by Caroline O’Connor.
As the Dowager Empress, Mary Beth Peil scores mightily, bringing a sense of genuine nobility along with great womanly warmth to the role. Finally, there’s Ramin Karimloo, quite compelling as Gleb, a Soviet official with a conscience: it’s his mission to dispose of Anya should she turn out to really be Anastasia.
Peil and Karimloo both immeasurably deepen the dramatic heft of a show that gives you plenty to look at and savour.
Peggy Hickey’s choreography is conventional but lively. Lindo Cho’s costumes range tellingly from the drab garb of the street people to the spectacular ballroom attire of the Romanoffs and the glittery nightclub wear of Russian exiles in Paris at the dawn of the Jazz Age.
Probably most spectacular of all is the set design by Alexander Dodge, which utilises to jaw-dropping effect the gigantic, eye-popping projections of Aaron Rhyne, with gorgeous views of St. Petersburg and Paris, plus other mood-setting visuals.
The show credits as inspiration not just one movie, but two, both entitled Anastasia. One is the 1956 romantic drama which won Ingrid Bergman an Oscar. The other is the 1997 animated musical, which featured a score by Flaherty and Ahrens. The film’s songs are incorporated into the new show.
But it’s also apparent that Anastasia, like many other musicals, draws inspiration as well from the musicals of the past. When Dmitry and Vlad tutor Anya in the ways of the Romanoffs in a number entitled, ‘Learn to Do It’, you might just be reminded of a couple of Englishmen named Higgins and Pickering teaching a waif named Eliza about the rain in Spain.
When a group of Russians leaving in exile sing how “I’ll bless my homeland till I die” in a number called ‘My Petersburg’, it’s hard not to think of folks lamenting an exit from Anatevka or even Austria, with thoughts of its edelweiss.
Gleb’s relentless pursuit of Anya is reminiscent of a policeman’s chasing after a character Karimloo played not too long ago in an enterprise entitled Les Misérables. And of course, the foot-swivelling and high-kicks of the charleston are a welcome sight in any number of shows, as are the hijinks of the second couple, Vlad and Lily.
Anastasia, though, uses all these inspirations with inspiration, putting together an exemplar of entertainment that tries hard and successfully to give its Broadway audience its money’s worth. It may not elevate the art form, but it certainly keeps it happily afloat.
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