Anastasia: Hitting their Demographics Wickedly
The energy and excitement in the crowd is intoxicating, even though the crowd seems to be made up mostly of teenage girls way below the drinking age. And for me, it’s a blessed thing to see the young audience members beaming with glee to be at a Broadway show. Anastasia is created with this demographic in mind and they are embracing it. The splashy and animated postcard-like musical is pretty enough; based on both of the 20th Century Fox’s films of the same name; the 1997 animated film and the 1956 movie starring Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brynner. And I’m sure it’s sweeping and grand enough to keep those imaginative young minds engaged and (hopefully) wanting to come back for more. That being said, I’m sure my friend and I were in the minority that had not seen either films, although I’m guessing most in the audience were here because of the animated one. There are probably also very few who don’t know the tale of the woman who turns up in Paris claiming to be the long lost daughter of the Czar, the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia. It’s a real life fairy tale crafted into a dreamy romantic musical directed with flair by Darko Tresnjak, the Tony winning director of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder. The story is birthed out of the chaos of revolution and murder, spanning the vastness between St. Petersburg and Paris, with a thrilling mystery at it’s center. Is this young amnesiac woman the lost daughter to Russian royalty? Or part of a con job perpetrated upon the rich grief-stricken grandmother, the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, regally played to perfection by Mary Beth Peil (The Visit). Is it for money? fame? acceptance? This is the hook that is being dangled before our eyes (and ears), but sadly, we all know how the true story ends (the body of Anastasia was found years later buried with the rest of the family and Anna Anderson the most famous of impostors was proven to be just that). Although, here on the Broadhurst Theatre stage, we want to believe.
Anastasia, with a book by the brilliant Terrence McNally (The Visit, Master Class) and songs by the Tony-winning team of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens (Ragtime) starts out thoroughly enchanting us with the lovely and engaging memory song, ‘Once Upon a December‘, one that is sure to be reprised throughout this quest to regain a slice of the familial past. It’s a charming catchy song sung by a grandmother to her favorite granddaughter before leaving her for Paris. It carries with it all the love and warmth, enshrined in a music box, wrapped in the royal romance of pre-revolutionary Russia. It swirls a magical spell on us just like the Russian ghosts who dance and swirl about to the regale but sometimes chaotic choreography by Peggy Hickey (A Gentlemen’s Guide…), each and every time the song is performed. It reminds me of other sweet lullabies used to bring forward the innocent past from a few older and better crafted musicals, such as Mary Poppins and Les Misérables. I only wish the rest of the show brought forth similar and stronger attachments and memories, more then what this pretty, but slightly dull musical is able to conjure.
It is a gorgeously produced show that reminds me of a snow globe from the cities of St. Petersburg and Paris. The set by Alexander Dodge (Present Laughter, CSC’s The Liar) is a bit flat and simple, but is saved by the wondrous projections by Aaron Rhyne (Bonnie and Clyde). Between the two of them, they create very pretty landscapes of snow and city, that are almost too picture postcard perfect to get caught up in. The rest of the design team: costumes: Linda Cho (A Gentleman’s Guide…, The Velocity of Autumn); lighting: Donald Holder (Oslo, She Loves Me); sound: Peter Hylenski (Something Rotten, After Midnight) all do effective work giving the production a look that is dreamlike although sometimes slipping a bit too far into the animated Disney cruiseship look. Russia rarely feels like Russia, although in a surprising twist, the most Russian moments take place in the Parisian club where all the Russians gather to reminisce about the ‘Land of Yesterday‘.
Christy Altomare as the young confused lady, Anya, who may or may not be the long-lost daughter of the last Russian czar, who’s family were all executed on the night of the Russian Revolution, is glorious as we watch her confidence and radiance bloom before our eyes. She has grace and elegance from pretty much the beginning, and we gladly join her on her adventure of ‘self-discovery’ aided (or cajoled, depending on how you want to look at it) by the handsome young Disney-like leading man, Dimitri. Derek Klena (The Bridges of Madison County) who plays the desperate young man reminds me of numerous street-wise characters that populate animated features such as Kristoff in Frozen or Flynn Rider in Tangled. There is very little Russian about him, more like the Leanardo DiCaprio character on the Titanic, which is no dig, but not the biggest praise either. And that last quarrel between Anya and Dimitri feels forced and fickle rather than emotional and true.
With his funny older side-kick, Vlad, jovially portrayed by John Bolton (Dames at Sea), the three feel like characters from the song, ‘Good Morning‘ from the classic 1952 musical, Singing in the Rain, when Debbie Reynolds, Gene Kelly, and Donal O’Connor plot to turn the disastrous movie, The Duelling Cavalier into a smash musical called The Dancing Cavalier. The three Russians don’t seem to be escaping anything too dangerous as they try to leave their homeland Russia; more like a frolicking adventure from St. Petersburg to Paris.
Speaking of dangerous, the villain has been restructured into some sort of love-sick Communist Comrade named Gleb, who sees Anya one day as a nervous street sweeper and is smitten. Even when her escapade is seen as a threat to the Revolution, his obsessional love plays havoc with this beliefs. It’s not surprise he is so wonderfully played by Ramin Karimloo who was nominated for a Tony playing the other obsessional idealist, Valjean in the 2014 revival of Les Misérables. The only troubling part is that his character isn’t really given that much to do, no arc of growth, or much of a journey. He has one great song, ‘Still’ but the others lack any deepening of his role in the whole story, especially the slightly lame, ‘Land of Yesterday‘ reprise in Act II that doesn’t seem to have much of a purpose except to remind us that Gleb is still there and after them. It’s a shame he is saddled with such a one-note character, and such a sadly unfulfilling crescendo that has little to no suspense. Karimloo is so much more, but I guess I’ll have to wait until his Prince of Broadway comes this summer. Please tell me, Karimloo, that you will be rejoining that production when it opens August 24th at the MTC’s Friedman Theatre. I wanted to fly over to Japan just to see you in that show.
One of the fun parts of this show lies in the sidekicks, Bolton’s Vlad and Countess Lily, played with spunky hilarity by Caroline O’Connor (A Christmas Story the Musical). O’Connor is having a blast playing this doozy of character. Their love affair has in many ways more spunk and sincerity then any other in this musical. Their song and dance number, ‘The Countess and the Common Man’ is feisty and filled with flirty fun. With musical supervisor & music director/conductor by Tom Murray (Honeymoon in Vegas) and orchestrations by Doug Besterman (A Bronx Tale), Anastasia does bring to mind numerous old movie musical moments. And as I write this review, I keep noticing how all these elements remind me of other shows and movies, many of which I would have to say have done a better job than this one. Anastasia crafts a pretty telling of a romantic tale that will engage and connect to the teenage girls that have turned shows like Wicked and Matilda into juggernauts. I’m betting the producers are hoping for the same, and I think they have done it. But sadly, us non-pubescents might find ourselves feeling this show is a bit too long, a bit dull, with not enough charm to sustain.