“Anastasia” Returns to Hartford with Stunning Production

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By Karen Isaacs

Anastasia has returned to Hartford in style. The musical adaptation of the Disney animated film, had its world premiere at Hartford Stage in 2016 before opening on Broadway the following year. It is now at the Bushnell through Sunday, Jan. 19.

This is a national tour that features top-notch production values; the sets, projections and costumes are magnificent.

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. Lighting designer Donald Holder, achieved stunning visuals, 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 wrote new music and Terrence McNally has written a new book. The book is 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, who is now charged with tracking the Anastasia pretenders, but who becomes attracted to Anastasia.

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, an amnesiac gained notoriety for her claim to be Anastasia. Most of the versions or the story take some elements from her story and the 1952 French play by Marcelle Maurette.

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,” “Meant to Be,” “We’ll Go from There,” among others.

Darko Tresnjak directed the original production and oversaw this national tour. His direction and concept is brilliant. 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.

Overall the cast is excellent. Anya as played by Lila Coogan brings not only a lovely voice to the role, but underlines the conflict that Anya feels. Jake Levy is a fine Dmitry, the younger of the two who find her and train her. He is earnest and sincere, but perhaps a bit cynicism would be useful; after all he is trying to pull off a con.

Edward Staudenmayer has the meaty role of Vlad, Dmitry’s cohort and a longtime con-artist with an outsized personality. He gets several of the better songs including the duet “The Countess and the Common Man” as well as “Meant to Be.”

As the villain (after all he is sent to shoot Anya), Jason Michael Evans creates this complex character and makes his songs “Still,” “The Neva Flows,” and the reprise of “Land of Yesterdays” personal. His voice is terrific.

The most problematic performance is Joy Franz’ as the Dowager Empress. Initially she doesn’t seem very royal but more like a cuddly grandmother. Therefore later in the show her more regal persona seems not to blend with the earlier characterization.

Certainly this is a show and a production that offers a delightful evening’s entertainment. There’s no deep message but you will be swept away by the Cinderella and fairy tales aspects of it.

For tickets visit The Bushnell or call 860-987-5900.


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