In a season crowded with what have turned out to be so many disappointing Broadway shows rushing to make the Tony Award deadline (April 27), Anastasia rises above the fray. Here is an old fashioned (that’s a compliment) book musical with a ravishing score, expressive, illuminating lyrics, significant talent, remarkable visuals, war, deception, and love.
The Cinderella story, for those of you unfamiliar with Anatole Litvak’s 1956 film or the Disney cartoon, revolves around what might’ve happened had Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia, the youngest daughter of Czar Nicholas II, escaped the murder of her family by Bolshevik secret police in 1918. There were, in fact, rumors of survival and young women who declared themselves to be the princess.
Nicole Scimeca, Mary Beth Peil
Ostensibly caught in an explosion, our heroine (Christy Altomare), is an amnesiac called Anya by the hospital in which she was treated. The girl is scraping by as a street cleaner in poverty-stricken St. Petersburg: A city on the rise/It’s really very friendly/If you don’t mind spies…She remembers only someone’s promise to meet in Paris, where all will be well. We’ve seen that covenant made by her grandmother, the Dowager Empress (Mary Beth Peil) who inadvertently decamped to the French capital in time to escape joining her family in death. A Faberge music box is given little Anastasia (the superb Nicole Scimeca).
Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna
Anya is conscripted by con men Dmitry (Derek Klena, a young audience heartthrob with an excellent tenor, though less presence than he might have) and Vlad (John Bolton – a fine comic actor in the vein of Billy De Wolfe) to masquerade as Anastasia in order to collect a sizeable reward 0ffered by the Dowager. Vlad was once a palace insider and provides fount of information. Lyric details add historical interest. Hesitant about the dishonesty, Anya reconciles it as a way to get to France and then begins to believe the possibility.
Every now and then during tutoring, the girl finds she knows something she shouldn’t – like French. These windows of recollection, skillfully woven through the book, are dismissed by Dmitry and Vlad as imagination. A scene at the last palace ball Anastasia attended is evocatively recreated with projected spectres joining dancers on stage and balconies.
Ramin Karimloo, Christy Altomare
Meanwhile, Anya is noticed by Gleb (Ramin Karimloo) a regimental official so taken with her that despite staunch commitment to the authoritarian state, he lets the girl go even after hearing of the plot in which she’s involved. Anya, Vlad and Dmitry make it to Paris backed by a surprising resource. (Oh, the ingeniously imagined train ride!)
Gleb follows, instructed to kill the girl if she turns out to be Anastasia. His father was one of the soldiers who killed the Tsar’s family. Will he be able to finish the job? Also in the balance is Dmitry’s romance with the young woman he must give up should her identity be proven.
Vlad hopes to get to the Dowager Empress through her lady in waiting, Countess Lily with whom he was once romantically entangled. (Caroline O’Connor – imagine a more attractive Martha Raye.) A charming push/pull number with Lily and Vlad (O’Connor and Bolton make farce delicious) recalls early Hollywood musicals as does a number in The Neva Club peopled by white Russian exiles. Outcome rests with hopeful, frightened Anya and Anastasia’s disillusioned grandmother – no, her Nana. “You can’t be anyone unless you first recognize yourself.”
John Bolton, Caroline O’Connor and the Company
Fellow journalists have objected to sidelining the royal family’s deaths/turbulent Russian politics. I disagree. The event is unmistakable. Poverty and government shifts are not the point. Enough is evoked to give context to the situation. This is not an opera.
In fact, Anastasia might be considered a primer for well conceived musicals. Numbers organically elaborate on dialogue. Comic relief appears after quiet intensity. Past and present occupy the stage with cohesive luster. Even aware of the conclusion, we willingly, appreciatively succumb.
Songs like the music box’s “Once Upon a December,” “Journey to The Past”: Heart, don’t fail me now!/Courage, don’t desert me!/Don’t turn back now that we’re here… and “Crossing a Bridge” may be familiar, but empathetic emotion feels fresh. Several solos by Gleb are as edifying as they are musically powerful and “Still” by the Dowager Empress is heart wrenching. At least two vocal arrangements play conspirators’ themes against one another with consummate skill. (There’s no analysis in the moment, just intoxication.)
John Bolton, Christy Altomare, Derek Klena in the box
In her Broadway debut, Christy Altomare is grave and radiant. We’re with her every step of the way. Warm vocals wonder and soar. Memory fragments emerge credibly abrupt. Doubt feels sincere. An artist to watch.
Mary Beth Peil is stunning. Every inch the Dowager Empress, the actress embodies magisterial grace. She exudes love for Anastasia, bone deep suffering of loss – her vocals tear at one, galvanizing expectation, and weary joy. A masterful turn.
Ramin Karmiloo (Gelb) is a leading man to his toes. Stage presence is unconditional, his muscular, expansive voice hypnotic. Karmiloo shows us the nuance of Gelb’s conflicting feelings while maintaining a habitually rigid outer demeanor.
Christy Altomare, Derek Klena
Director Darko Tresnjak, like four other members of the show’s creative team, was responsible for the gleefully high-wattage A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. Tresnjak adroitly handles the Dowager Countess’s delicate goodbye to little Anastasia and small, telling gestures – like Gelb’s dismissal of his subordinates, as well as he manifests murder, revolution, and nightclub frivolity. Visual tableaux are always pleasing.
Choreographer Peggy Hickey melds Broadway hoofing with 1920s Charleston, gives us a comic tango with panache, and engineers shimmering waltzes.
Alexander Hodge’s Scenic Design and Donald Holder’s Lighting (from war to ghostly dreams) work symbiotically hand in hand with some of the most fantastic Projection Design I’ve ever seen (by Aaron Rhyne). Though I’d’ve preferred a bit more solid scenery and a tad less Peter Max coloration in videos, cumulative results are astonishing. Settings are comprised of full scale, detailed photographs artfully manipulated to indicate time of day and character movement. Anyone in this field should emphatically attend.
Linda Cho’s Costumes are period perfect, believably tattered, stylish when appropriate, glorious at court, and always collectively flattering.
Photos by Matthew Murphy
Opening: Christy Altomare
Photo of Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna, Wiki
Book by Terrance McNally
Music by Stephen Flaherty
Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Directed by Darko Tresnjak
The Broadhurst Theatre
235 West 44th Street