By Karen Isaacs
When Anastasia opened at Hartford Stage a year ago I enjoyed it but felt it needed work. Yet I believed the show would attract an audience due to its fairy tale romance qualities, the popularity of the animated film of the 1997 and the top-notch people involved.
It’s now opened on Broadway. The pluses that delighted me at Hartford, continue to entrance. But while changes were made, the weakness of this show is its less than stellar book and a score that is ho-hum.
This is a show that young girls and women will love: it combines elements of Cinderella, My Fair Lady and Gigi: the story of a young woman transformed into the equivalent of a princess.
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. It was a gold mine for mentally disturbed women and con artists who could coach them with information. Anastasia’s grandmother lived in Paris surrounded the refugee Russian nobility. 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 1920s 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.
The book of the show by Terrence McNally has been substantially changed from the film; gone are the animated animals and now we have complex villain in Gleb, a Communist official whose father was at the execution but who becomes attracted to Anastasia.
The musical moves from the opening at the court to the streets of St. Petersburg to Paris. 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.
Composer Steven Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens (Ragtime, A Man of No Importance, Once on this Island and more), have kept some of the songs from the film including 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. Many others have been added – some work really well and some seem to detract. I did like “My Petersburg,” “A Secret She Kept,” and “We’ll Go from There.”
The plusses of this show are all in the production elements, as they were in Hartford.
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.
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 Piel 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. Ramin Karimloo is dynamic ats the villain-like character Gleb. He 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 seems to lack a “spark” that the role requires. She is very effective in her songs, particularly the act one closer “Journey to the Past.”
But the problem is that the musical seems to be split between the more serious first act and act two in Paris. Two comic numbers featuring the Dowager’s lady in waiting are back to back in the second act. They seem a total distraction and interruption of the flow of the somewhat predictable plot. I was surprised they had survived the transition from the original production; at least the first of them, needed serious pruning. The momentum is also halted by an extended ballet sequence that seems overlong.
If so much was right with Anastasia, why wasn’t I totally enchanted? 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. Formulaic but well done.
Certainly it is a show that romantics and all those enchanted by Cinderella stories will enjoy. And the production values are certainly worth Broadway prices.
Anastasia is at the Broadhurst Theater, 235 w. 44th Street. Tickets are available through Telecharge.