For people of a certain age, there is a magical connection with the animated film Anastasia, perhaps the crowning achievement of the Don Bluth productions which included The Secret of NIMH, An American Tail, The Land before Time, and All Dogs Go to Heaven.
Anastasia: The New Musical, while slightly altered from the original, largely captures that magic. It dramatizes the compelling story of a lost princess not from some fairy-tale world, but from the 20th century. I couldn’t help but notice that at least half of the audience was made up of girls and young women from five to twenty-five, all of whom were enthralled with the show. If Disney princesses and American Girls Dolls are your cup of tea, you can stop reading now. You will love this musical, and should go see it immediately. There’s also much to like for everyone else.
Anastasia is an imagined story based around actual events. It begins with the historical Russian Revolution of 1917, including the execution of the Tsar and his family. For years afterwards, rumors persisted that his youngest daughter, the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna Romanov, somehow survived; at least ten women made prominent claims to the name. This story focuses on a young woman with amnesia who is taken in by two con men hoping to pass her off as the princess for the reward money. As the musical progresses, the young girl is unsure whether she actually is Anastasia and remembering her past or if she is buying into the con. Complicating matters, she falls in love with one of the con men, knowing that if she really is royalty they can never be together. The three travel to Paris in order to convince Anastasia’s grandmother of her identity, evading Soviet police along the way.
Despite including some very dark moments the musical generally takes on a positive, and sometimes comedic, tone. Darko Tresnjak directs a live action version of an animated film, with spectacular background projections created by Aaron Rhyne (who won the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards for his work), colorful costumes by Linda Cho (a Tony nominee), and a three-turntable set designed by Alexander Dodge.
Terrence McNally (Kiss of the Spider Woman, Love! Valor! Compassion!, Ragtime) removes the more supernatural elements from the story, but still delivers a straightforward fairytale (for fans of the film Rasputin and his pet Bartok are replaced by a Soviet authoritarian named Gleb). He keeps the heart of the film (based on a 1956 Fox film written by Guy Bolton and Arthur Laurents, which was based on Marcelle Maurette’s 1955 play) while streamlining the story for the stage.
Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (Ragtime, Seussical, Rocky: the Musical) expand on the songs they wrote for the film, delivering a mixture of Gershwin-esque dance numbers and straight-ahead ballads. The film’s most famous song, “Journey to the Past,” delivers a climactic end to Act One. While none of the newer songs are quite as good, they deliver several star turn moments. The cast is at its best when belting out those tunes or employing Peggy Hickey’s period-inspired choreography.
Christy Altomare (in the title role) has a beautiful voice, and great onstage chemistry with Derek Klena (the con man Dmitry). John Bolton (Vlad) offers comic relief throughout, but the comedy works much better once we are introduced to Caroline O’Connor (Countess Lily) in the second act. O’Connor steals every scene she is in, and while all four are over-the-top at times in their acting, she alone pulls it off perfectly.
Ramin Karmiloo (Gleb) is outstanding as always, although a bit underused compared to previous roles like the Phantom (The Phantom of the Opera/Love Never Dies) or Jean Valjean (Les Miserables). Mary Beth Peil (a Tony nominee) gives a tour-de-force performance as the Dowager Empress, an old woman heartbroken by loss and all but without hope.
Anastasia delivers beautiful set pieces, and great Broadway song and dance numbers, but it’s romance and the heroine’s journey that win audiences over. It doesn’t deliver anything much in terms of originality or daring beyond its design elements, but it nails exactly what its target demographic is looking for.
Anastasia: The New Broadway Musical is currently enjoying an open-ended run at the Broadhurst Theatre, New York City.
Robert Cain, Lima Charlie News Culture Correspondent
Robert Cain is a veteran of the United States Air Force, where he served six years as a Korean cryptologic language analyst. After an honorable discharge, he spent six years supporting the Defense Intelligence Agency as an all-source intelligence contractor. Rob is currently studying urban policy issues at Columbia University, and will earn his B.A. in Urban Studies this May. He is a Veterans for Global Leadership Fellow, and former community outreach coordinator for New York City’s Mayor’s Office of Veterans’ Affairs (now the Department of Veterans’ Services). Rob is an avid theater and movie goer and is trying to decide if it’s worth holding onto his massive DVD collection in our new digital age. Follow Rob on Twitter @imrobcain
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