By Karen Isaacs
The last time I saw a world premiere musical at Hartford Stage, I left absolutely entranced. The show was A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, which became a surprise hit on Broadway and won the Tony for best musical and the direction Tony for Darko Tresnjak.
Another world premiere musical is now at Hartford Stage and its Broadway transfer is already announced. Yet I left Anastasia with more doubts than the last time.
The production is opulent; every aspect of the production will take your breath away. Let’s start with the set by Alexander Dodge. He creates the court of Imperial Russia, Paris, and a wide variety of places in between. Particularly ingenious is his handling of the train on which Anya and her companions ride to escape Communist Russia.
Then we can praise the costumes by Linda Cho – the gowns of Imperial Russia and later the gown for the Dowager Empress — are elegant and opulent. But she goes beyond that to create authentic 1920s costumes as well. Her costumes are supplemented by the wig and hair design by Charles G. LaPointe.
Let’s praise the sound design by Peter Hylenski and the lighting by Donald Holder. I marveled at some of the lighting effects Holder achieved including one scene where only Anya is in color.
But the highest praise must go to the video and projection design by Aaron Rhyne. His designs create three-dimensional images of St. Petersburg – the winter palace, the cathedral and so much more – Paris and the various scenes in-between.
Anastasia is billed as “inspired by the 20th Century Fox animated film” from 1997. Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) and Steven Flaherty (music) who wrote the score for that film are still involved and Terrence McNally has written a new book.
The basic story of Anastasia, the thought that the Tsar’s youngest daughter escaped execution, has been the basis of plays, films and even a musical (Anya) in 1965 for years. Ingrid Bergman won an Oscar for the role in 1956. It is based on a kernel of truth: there was a search for Anastasia and a number of imposters tried to claim the money. In the 1920’s Anna Anderson, who claimed to be an amnesiac gained notoriety for her claim to be Anastasia. Most of the versions take some elements from her story and the 1952 French play by Marcelle Maurette.
I have never seen the 1997 animated film, but some cursory research reveals that McNally has substantially changed the plot to make it more probable. The basic outline remains the same: we see the royal family before the revolution when the Dowager Empress gives her youngest granddaughter a music box before she leaves for Paris where she lives. The revolution arrives and the royal family is captured and later killed.
Soon we are in the midst of the Communist regime of the mid-1920s. A young woman is sweeping the streets; she has no memory of her past. Two men (Dmitry and Vlad) – both of whom live by their wits — know that the Dowager Empress has offered a reward for finding Anastasia; they decide to look for someone to impersonate the Princess and find the young woman. In a My Fair Lady like story, they tutor her and groom her so she can pass; occasionally she recounts a memory that surprises them.
They escape Communist Russia and travel to Paris – after some narrow escapes – where they manage to arrange a meeting with the Dowager Empresses’ companion and then the Dowager herself, who has become weary of the parade of imposters. Do you really need for anyone to tell you the ending? It is predictable.
McNally has added in Gleb, a Soviet bureaucrat whose father was apparently at the execution of the royal family and who is now charged by his bosses with tracking these Anastasia pretenders. That he seems somewhat smitten with Anya/Anastasia adds a dimension to the story.
Only a few of the songs from the film remain in the new musical: the Oscar winning “Journey to the Past,” “Once Upon a December,” “A Rumor in St. Petersburg,” “Paris Holds the Key” and a couple of others.
The show is packed with songs, many of which are lovely. In addition to the songs from the film, I particularly liked “My Petersburg,” “I Never Should Have Let Them Dance,” “We’ll Go from There,” among others.
Certainly Darko Tresnjak’s direction and concept is brilliant. He has his production team create wonderful effects, he transitions the multiple scenes and locations splendidly, gives us ghost-like flashbacks, plus he draws the best from his performers. He is aided by choreographer Peggy Hickey who creates everything from court quadrilles to folk dances and even a ballet.
Most of the performers are also terrific. Mary Beth Peil plays the Dowager Empress with both elegance and touching emotion. Derek Klena is fine as Dmitry but doesn’t really create a three dimensional character until the second act. John Bolton is Vlad, who is part comic figure and part somewhat tragic one. He really scores with the lovely song, “I Never Should Have Let Them Dance.” Manoel Felciano is the villain-like character Gleb. Felciano makes him more than just a villain; there is undercurrent of conflict between his commitment to the Party and his attraction to Anya. Caroline O’Connor plays Lily the Dowager Empress’ companion. She is excellent and brings both pathos and comedy to the part.
Christy Altomare has the difficult job of transforming a somewhat typical “Disney princess” into a real woman. She succeed partly, yet I never quite believed in her or even cared about her. She is very effective in her songs, particularly the act one closer “Journey to the Past.”
If so much was right with Anastasia, why wasn’t I totally enchanted? First, the show needs cutting – act one is too long, the comic number “Land of Yesterday” goes on much too long, etc. The humor of that number seems to break the mood of the piece. But the real problem for me was that I never became emotionally involved in the show; I can see My Fair Lady multiple times and always root for Eliza and even the semi-romance with Higgins. Here I wasn’t invested in the show or the characters. They seemed more two-dimensional. Pleasant but not emotionally engaging.
The audience certainly loved it and I oohed and aahed at the costumes, set and projections with the rest of the audience.
My theater companion said the show made her “feel like a princess.” Right, but more like a Disney princess than a real live person.
I’m sure that before Anastasia opens on Broadway next season, it will be changed and tightened. I’ll even bet that no matter what the critics say, it will attract a delighted audience of women and girls of all ages.
Anastasua is at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford through June 12. For tickets visit hartfordstage.org or call 860-527-5151.