Romance has been key to ‘Anastasia’s phenomenal success over the past year. Not merely between lovers, but also in the sense that it transports us to a romanticized version of historical events. Here’s a sneak peek at the Broadway musical that SHN will present in 2019.
While some songs will be familiar to audiences from the 1997 animated film, the best of the 16 new songs was ‘In a Crowd of Thousands’. With a simple melody and lyrics, it related Anastasia and Dmitry’s backstory.
The play begins in 1906, as eight-year-old Anastasia is given a magical music box by her grandmama, and has a last dance with her father the Czar. That night, the royal family was attacked and killed—the communist regime could not take the chance that any Russian royal would ever claim the throne again. The assassination scene was not graphic; the stage was simply saturated with red.
Soon the Dowager Empress (Mary Beth Peil) gets the news that her entire family has been wiped out by the Bolsheviks. “All of them?” she gasps. Later in life, still pining for her family, she says: “I am unreliable. I am a historian of the heart.”
Fast forward to 1927. If she had survived, Anastasia would now be 26. ‘A Rumor in St. Petersburg’ circulates that Anastasia is alive. Its cynical tone reflects the wretched, impoverished society under its new, oppressive regime: “What daughter may be still alive?” The milieu of the Bolshevik usurpers was a monotone gray and utilitarian one, except for symbolic touches of red on the flag and the uniforms.
Anya (the amnesiac Anastasia has become) meets a pair of charming grifters; the young and handsome Dmitry (Zach Adkins) and his sidekick Vlad (John Bolton). They coach her to impersonate Anastasia to fool the only remaining royal, the Dowager Empress (Mary Beth Peil). Ironically, Anastasia’s schoolroom happens to be the abandoned palace of the long-dead Romanovs. When Anastasia first entered, she said, “I’ve been in this room.” These surroundings trigger more memories. In the song ‘In My Dreams’ Anastasia recalled “flashes of fire and the end of a scream…”
In this show, the actors shared billing with the stunning 360 degree projection system, which was used throughout. Ghosts danced among live actors and were projected onto the theater walls. One could almost smell the smoke billowing from smokestacks in the ruined city of St. Petersburg, renamed Leningrad.
On Broadway, Christy Altomare played the title role of Anya/Anastasia. A wonderful singer, she overloaded the character with waifishness, so it was a jolt when we saw her transformed as Anastasia for the first time. An actress with more inner fire would have been more satisfying. Although at times she stood on the stage inert and wooden, she did possess a sense of the rumor, the legend and the mystery, around which the musical was constructed.
Adkins was full of audience-directed charm when the spotlight was on him, and his voice was impressive. Unfortunately, he was not a generous actor when the occasion called for interaction with Altomare. There was zero chemistry between them, and he did not do justice to the part of a lovelorn street urchin in love with Anastasia at first sight. He played the role like an awkward colt.
So, does this musical feel derivative? Yes. Not only is it based on an existing 1997 film, but it brings to mind My Fair Lady and other musicals. Is it still worth seeing? Yes, if the amazing effects accompany the U.S. tour.
‘Anastasia’ is neither original nor intellectual. It’s about a specific time in history, evoking episodes and sentiments so that the audience experiences them in the way the creators intended. It is also very pretty, evoking an older Broadway — one of grandeur, spectacle and sparkling gems.
On a positive note, there was abundant reverent stillness in this show, which dovetailed nicely with the reminiscent tone. The lovely ‘I Bless My Homeland’ was one example.
Ah, romance. The production’s most conventionally romantic scene accompanied the song ‘In a Crowd of Thousands’. And ‘Anastasia’ displayed other types of romance in other music that conveys the romance of the time and place: ‘Stay, I Pray ‘ (sung when Anastasia and friends were leaving St. Petersburg, now Leningrad). Also, ‘Journey to the Past’ was amazing with the Eiffel Tower and the glittering city of Paris in the background.
The show worked best when Anya was remembering her past bit by bit. All in all, it felt as patched together as it was (coming from several sources), but it was still very powerful.