Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
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
Anastasia Book by Terrance McNally Music by Stephen Flaherty Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens Directed by Darko Tresnjak The Broadhurst Theatre 235 West 44th Street
Five years ago, Director Bartlett Sher introduced Norwegian sociologist Terje-Rod Larsen to playwright J.T. Rogers. Larsen shared a little known backstory of the 1993 Oslo peace accord with the author who, it seems, had long wanted to write about the Israelis and Palestinians. A revealing history describing the secret involvement of Norway, unofficial representatives from both sides and, in particular, his wife, diplomat Mona Juul (then an official in the Norwegian Foreign Ministry) and himself (at the time director of the Fafo Institute for Applied Social Sciences) provides the basis for this riveting play. Though Rogers later interviewed the couple in depth, he stayed away from other survivors preferring to put his own stamp on participants.
Jennifer Ehle, Jefferson Mays
Like Stephen Sondheim’s song “Someone in a Tree” (Pacific Overtures) or Michael Frayn’s play Copenhagen, Rogers embroiders on what he was told, filling in that which couldn’t be observed. He also admittedly sexed up the characters, making them younger, combining and omitting for dramatic purposes. The implausible-but-true facts are, however, front and center with much of what the author deems “crazy” notably accurate.
In the course of three acts (with two intermissions), we’re made to feel like voyeurs, flies on the wall of a volatile narrative peppered with unexpected comedy emerging when historical enemies let their hair down. There are even jokes and sharp parodies of political figures that emerge when historical enemies let their hair down. Partly narrated by smart, level-headed Mona with wry asides to us, the story illuminates a roster of galvanizing players. It’s not necessary to know the accord’s public history, though some knowledge concerning both sides’ contentions would help.
Daniel Oreskes, Anthony Azizi, Daniel Jenkins, Dariush Kashani
The first act opens and closes on a dinner party at which Terje (Jefferson Mays) and Mona (Jennifer Ehle) intend to inform incipient Norwegian Prime Minister Johan Jorgan Host (T. Ryder Smith) and his wife Marianne Heiberg (Henny Russell) of about 9 months of clandestine meetings they’ve been facilitating between the P.L.O. and Israelis. The initially congenial evening is interrupted by two calls on side by side telephones, one from Israeli Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin (Adam Dannheisser), the other from a P.L.O. representative.
Meeting participants include: fox-like P.L.O. Finance Minister Ahmed Qurie (Anthony Azizi) and unruly Marxist Palestinian, Hassan Asfour (Dariush Kashani) on one side of the table and wary, economic academics Yair Hirschfeld (Daniel Oreskes) and Ron Pundak (Daniel Jenkins) – sent first so as not to involve the actual government on the other. The Israelis are later joined i.e. “upgraded” to tenacious Washington lawyer Joel Singer (Joseph Siravo) and cabinet member Uri Savir (Michael Aronov) who climbs out a Paris hotel window to secretly make his way to meetings, “because as we all know,” Mona dryly comments, “every mid-level Israeli diplomat is a rock star in Norway.”
Daniel Oreskes, Daniel Jenkins, Jefferson Mays, Anthony Azizi, Dariush Kashani
Nor has Terje and Mona’s relationship been depicted as cardboard background. The sociologist is clearly drawn as wildcard instigator and driving force while his highly esteemed wife navigates diplomacy and keeps him at least in sight of protocol. “Take one more step forward,” she vehemently warns as they observe Qurie and Savir, “and I’ll divorce you.”
Acts Two and Three take us through the machinations/demands of the two factions both of whom risk international sanctions. Precautions are taken, but breached. Though we finally meet Shimon Peres (Daniel Oreskes), Arafat and Rabin never appear. Being aware of the outcome, does nothing to hinder absorption.
Every man is objectively depicted, his work and private selves played with specificity. As 60 years of habitual hatred and mistrust come to fore, remarks are condescending, insults searing, yet passions can turn on a dime.
When Savir describes his time in New York, it’s like watching an infectiously enthusiastic teenager. His parody of “asshole” Henry Kissinger verges on incendiary, yet ends in laughter. Fathers are remembered, daughter’s names shared, lots and lots of Johnny Walker Black imbibed. (The future film company will no doubt be paid for placement.)
Anthony Azizi, Dariush Kashani, Michael Aronov, Joseph Siravo, background-Angela Pierce
Though, as we know, the center didn’t hold, what was attempted was remarkable in its approach, risk, and reward. This is an eminently human saga of uplifting compromise where none seemed the least bit possible. Our obstructive Republican Congress, among others, might learn something.
Ensemble work is superb. Jefferson Mays’ rabbitty alertness and nuanced reaction to setbacks, Michael Aronov’s energy and theatricality and Jennifer Ehle’s preternatural, decidedly feminine equanimity add immeasurably. Angela Pierce is charming as the appreciated cook who, Hassan declares, “is to food what Vladimir Lenin is to land reform.”
Director Barlett Sher creates memorable stage images – allowing all three sections of audience sightline, enhances character with physicality, and paces the mercurial stop/start piece masterfully.
Michael Yeargan’s fluid set works in tandem with evocative Projections by 59Projections and Lighting by Donald Holder- love the snow!
Photos by T. Charles Erickson Opening: Michael Aronov, Jefferson Mays, Anthony Azizi
Already broadly celebrated in Paris and London, Florian Zeller’s 2012 “tragic Farce” (the playwright’s term) places us squarely in a mind suffering from advanced dementia. That’s an oxymoron. One cannot be squarely inside anything whose parameters are frighteningly mercurial. Intimates are unfamiliar, geography morphs beneath one’s feet, time shifts back and forth, oblivious and cruel. Yet we are there, wherever there is, almost as surely as Zeller’s protagonist, André, The Father (Frank Langella).
An elegant, upper middle class Frenchman who was probably never likeable, André fights the onset of this disease with a long unassailable ego and every ounce of his considerable strength and intelligence. It’s as if Prospero (The Tempest) took on the typhoon called forth by his errant brain. We watch as self-sacrificing daughter, Anne (Kathryn Erbe) futilely tries to get him at-home help who can withstand his anger, confusion, and indignant denial.
The play is a succession of scenes divided by blackouts with painful, flashing, proscenium lights – brain synapses? At first, we’re in André’s tasteful, bourgeois apartment shortly after his latest caregiver has fled in tears. He tells Anne that, among other failings, the woman stole his watch – André’s compass and an ongoing concern throughout. When it’s found in a cupboard behind the microwave where he stashes valuables, her obstinate father declares the only reason it wasn’t purloined is that he hid it. Why is Anne so unsympathetic, he demands, why is she not like the younger daughter he prefers?!
Brian Avers, Frank Langella
Every time the lights go off and on, time and place alter unsequentially. In the first vignette, Anne, who is divorced from Antoine (Charles Borland), says she’s moving to London to be with her lover, Pierre (Brian Avers) and must find a solution to her father’s inability to care for himself. In the next, André is living with Anne and a resentful Pierre to whom she seems to be married; then Antoine appears as her spouse. Both men seem to be current, both are not at first recognized. One of them repeatedly slaps the 80 year-old which is viscerally shocking. André regresses to a whimpering child.
One moment Anne appears to be a completely different woman, a blonde (Kathleen McNenny). In the next, she is ‘herself.’ A newly hired aide, Laura (Hannah Cabell), looks just like André’s absent daughter, who, spoiler alert, turns out to be long dead. The actor who plays Antoine shows up as a doctor; the blonde as his nurse.
Kathryn Erbe, Frank Langella
André is convinced Anne wants his apartment and will put him in a home. In his shaken mind, faces become interchangeable. Unmoored, he remembers only the last scene from which he tries to regain his bearings. We ricochet in time like a character out of a Kurt Vonnegut novel. The only consecutive aspect of the piece is increased incapacity, every incremental change palpably experienced. Charm turns to cruelty, paranoia, panic.
Frank Langella, Hannah Cabell
Keep your eyes on Scott Pask’s excellent Set. Each time the lights come up, things have changed. Artwork, photographs, books, and furniture disappear and return. To say this compounds the disorienting narrative is to minimize its effect. Between Mr. Langella’s inhabitation of this larger than life personality, Donald Holder’s disturbing Lighting Design, Fitz Patton’s evocative Music and Sound, and the map-less script, you may want to pack Dramamine.
Florian Zeller and translator Christopher Hampton have crafted an immensely affecting, immersive play in which we find ourselves sharing, rather than observing the protagonist’s experience.
Frank Langella is simply brilliant. Whatever affectation you may have attributed to the actor during the mid portion of his long career, has, these last years, been jettisoned for newfound authenticity. The portrayal is wrenching; mercurial adjustments in an effort to appear more grounded completely credible. Rather than indulging in an appeal for sympathy, Langella plays André with callous rancor, a man whose formidable pride and then actual self is violently stripped away by an unseen hand.
As Anne, Kathryn Erbe is believably strong, exhausted, frustrated and devoted.
Director Doug Hughes has done a masterful job. The result- powerful, nuanced, clarity of acting in an environment of utter obscurity.
Photos by Joan Marcus Opening: Frank Langella, Kathryn Erbe
Manhattan Theatre Club presents The Father by Florian Zeller Translated by Christopher Hampton Directed by Doug Hughes Samuel J. Friedman Theater 261 West 47th Street