While Anya (Christy Altomare) may not fully remember her past and whether she is Russia’s rumored surviving Grand Duchess Anastasia, audiences will be unable to forget Broadway-bound “Anastasia” debuting now at Hartford Stage.
Once upon a December, little Anastasia, 6, (Nicole Scimeca) receives a lovely music box from her grandmother, Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna to remember her before she leaves St. Petersburg for Paris, though her mother, Tsarina Alexandra (Lauren Blackman) tells her prayers are more crucial than music boxes. In a dance with her father, Tsar Nicholas II (Constantine Germanacos), we see Anastasia morph into her 17-year-old self, played by Molly Rushing, in a smooth transition made possible by the masking effect of the ensemble dancers. As rebels overtake the Romanov dynasty’s palace, clashing with exquisite and luxurious scenes illustrated by dance, the family flees and is ultimately killed. Anastasia runs back for that precious music box and is caught in the blast.
Fast forward to the 1920s, St. Petersburg has been renamed Leningrad in evolved Communist Russia. A young man named Dmitry (Derek Klena) and his mentor, Vlad Popov audition girls to play Anastasia to collect reward money from the Dowager Empress when a legend circulates claiming the grand duchess survived the attack on her family. In the process of developing their con, Dmitry and Vlad meet Anya (Christy Altomare), a young woman who awoke in the hospital with amnesia and doesn’t remember who she is but needs help with exit papers to get out of the country. She falls into their plan and it isn’t long before she and they wonder if their farce is true. Maybe she really is the Grand Duchess Anastasia, hope for Russia, which proves a threat to the current regime and sets high-ranking government official Gleb (Manoel Felciano) on a manhunt for her to kill her.
The play is a stage adaptation inspired by the 1997 Disney animated feature film by the same name. When first I heard composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens were behind the music, I was excited and immediately optimistic this new musical would have Broadway and Tony potential given its creative team. Flaherty and Ahrens wrote the music for the Disney classic and they also wrote the music for esteemed Broadway favorites like “Seussical The Musical,” “Ragtime,” “My Favorite Year” and “Lucky Stiff.” I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Flaherty when he happened to be sitting next to me in a staged reading for a rewrite of “My Favorite Year” Off-Broadway in New York and he was so kind and down-to-earth, so his involvement made me all-the-more enthusiastic about this production.
Not to mention that a significant number of the major players who took “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” from its Hartford Stage debut to Broadway and earned it the Tony in 2014 for Best Musical are involved in “Anastasia.” Director Darko Tresnjak, set designer Alexander Dodge and costume designer Linda Cho all won Tonys in their respective crafts for “A Gentleman’s Guide” and they’re reunited on the creative team for “Anastasia,” along with choreographer Peggy Hickey, projection designer Aaron Rhyne and dramaturg Elizabeth Williamson, who also worked on “A Gentleman’s Guide” with them. Lighting designer Donald Holder, who won the Tony for lighting in “The Lion King,” sound designer Peter Hylenski, who received a Tony nomination for “After Midnight,” and orchestrator Doug Besterman, who earned a Tony for “The Producers,” also comprise this crackerjack team, as well as music director Tom Murray (“Honeymoon in Vegas”).
With the lofty credentials of the creative team, it’s no wonder that “Anastasia” was one of the most beautiful musicals I’ve ever laid eyes on. The set is stunning. Projections bring the setting of every scene to life with vivid details such as animated seasonal features like snowfall, blood red hues representing bloody and violent rebellions against the royal family, fast-scrolling scenery giving a train the illusion of movement, Paris backdrops and the shadows of the ghostly figures of Anastasia’s royal ancestors and family. The lighting and breathtaking colors enhance the scenery.
The set choreography runs smoothly and beautifully as set pieces are twirled and lifted mechanically. The only moment I noticed a possible delay in the timing of a set feature was when Countess Lily Malevsky-Malevitch lights the Dowager Empress’s lantern and it doesn’t come on until the end of the scene.
The spinning stage is an element that helps time pass and makes the attack on the royal family more chaotic. It also livens the culturally and artistically bright and exuberant Paris when Anya, Dmitry and Vlad arrive there, adding a challenge to the choreography as the three effortlessly maneuver and climb on a revolving Eiffel Tower in a vibrant and memorable number about the city of love.
The breathtaking aesthetics of this production are also decorated by the sparkling costumes from Tsarina Alexandra’s and Anya’s stunning gowns to the brightly colored and fashionable attire of the Parisians in contrast to the more earthy wardrobes of the Russians.
Flaherty’s score preserves history in a majestic and reflective way. The orchestra’s sound was very full and the melodies were twinkling, though it was a little distracting that you could see the conductor.
Ahrens’ lyrics are romantic and emotional. The words make us feel for the characters as the actors, particularly Mary Beth Peil as the Dowager Empress, Christy Altomare as Anya, Derek Klena as Dmitry, pour every bit of their expressions, movements and all-around being into the songs and strongly emote their meaning and tug at your heartstrings. The cast had the privilege of working with the writing team throughout the process and adjusting as songs were removed or added or words were changed.
You feel the Dowager Empress’s sorrow when she finds out her family is dead in a brief scene that Peil said in a cast talk-back was added for the purpose of biding time for a costume change. Peil is acting royalty (you might recognize her as Grams from “Dawson’s Creek”) and she commands the stage in every element from her powerhouse vocals, to her expressions, character voice and all-around powerful emotions.
Altomare was easy to relate to as the sweet but spunky Anya and her voice had a pure Disney princess quality to it and her smile was captivating. She played well with Klena as the cheeky, clever pauper who remembers the Grand Duchess Anastasia waiving to him during a parade when she was eight and he was 10. Their chemistry is strong whether their characters are working together as new pals, sparring over a moral disagreement or falling in love. Klena’s vocals are princely and most powerful when he utilizes vibrato, occasionally waivering ever so slightly in pitch and tone when he puts more of a character voice on when singing. His charming nature and dimpled smile add to his appeal as our leading male.
Caroline O’Connor’s brassy voice, saucy attitude and dry humor as Countess Lily Malevsky-Malevitch, attendant to the Dowager Empress and Vlad’s old flame, brought comedy in her standout role. So did John Bolton as Vlad in his scenes with her. They were a dynamic duo of chemistry and paired well. O’Connor’s snazzy night club number was very lively and memorable.
Their duet reflecting on their history together was touching, comical and full of youthful fervor.
Young Nicole Scimeca was adorable in her doubled roles as little Anastasia and Prince Alexei Romanov. In the talk-back after Tuesday night’s performance, she said she loved having the opportunity to play characters with different gender perspectives, swiveling her hips less to walk as the young prince.
Manoel Felciano played a rather anticlimactic villain as Gleb, who like Anya wants to live up to his family, instead channeling history for bad in wanting to finish what his father was supposed to do in executing Anastasia if the rumors of her survival prove true. I expected his character to be more menacing and causing tragedy for our protagonists, but that was surprisingly not so and he has a moral awakening of sorts. However, Felciano’s acting was solid.
Many of the actors doubled parts in the ensemble and they gave character to even the smaller parts, like Rayanne Gonzales who got a lot of laughs as Gertrude Stein, and fleshed out the scenes. The cast is only about 20 people, so it’s small, and on a larger Broadway stage I could see the ensemble being larger.
The choreography was beautiful, particularly when our lead characters attend the “Swan Lake” ballet with Alida Michal as Odette, Max Clayton as Prince Siegfried and Dance Captain Johnny Stellard as Von Rothbart. The elegant dance mirrors what Anya is going through as Gleb looms in the shadows of the theater, aiming to shoot her dead.
This version of the story captures history and leaves out the magical elements that are in the Disney film. However, the story is still very magical. In a way, Anya’s memories are like magic as glimpses of her possible flashbacks of her royal origin rush through her head sporadically from seeming memories to dreams and nightmares. They jump from fragments to more complete when she meets the Dowager Empress, which could seem far-fetched, but that is mystery of memory.
Is Anya really Anastasia? The story too simply presents her as such even if it’s unbelievable. Director Darko Tresnjak said that, historically, DNA findings of the Romanov family confirm that “Anna Anderson was not Anastasia.” The ending isn’t really clear about that either way or what becomes of her, which I guess represents the nature of the rumor of her survival as legend. But regardless of whether she is or isn’t, Anya’s sense of self-discovery by the end and growth is almost more important.
“To me, that does not really matter. A fabrication gave birth to a myth, a modern romance,” Tresnjak says in the program.
Anastasia means resurrection, according to Tresnjak, and this play certainly does just that for this romantic story of hope.
The play ends on the symbolic Pont Alexandre III bridge, named after Anastasia’s grandfather. As the background projection transforms into a painting, we see how this production is a bridge between art and history through the magical vehicle of storytelling.
Many media outlets have reported that there are plans for “Anastasia” to go to Broadway in 2016-17, though it’s unclear when that will precisely happen and which theater.
However, Hartford Stage has a history of birthing Broadway shows and this one has promise, so you won’t want to miss it before it closes in our capital city. The production has extended its run time to June 19 due to popular demand.
“Anastasia” is about two and a half hours with an intermission.
For more information on the production and purchasing tickets, visit http://www.hartfordstage.org or call the box office at 860-527-5151.