Pity Terrence McNally, Tony-winning playwright, charged with fashioning the book of a Broadway musical out of a 1997 cartoon, which turned the Russian Revolution into a fairytale, grinding actual history into mush by featuring Rasputin as the anti-monarchy villain, an undead Vampire-like figure with evil ghostly green minions and an albino bat sidekick.
None of the cartoon’s villains remain in Anastasia the musical, opening tonight on Broadway. In dramatizing the legend surrounding the youngest daughter of the last Czar, the show has created a new villain, a Soviet official named Gleb. Gleb exists in neither the 1997 Fox cartoon Anastasia nor the 1956 Cold War era Fox film Anastasia starring Ingrid Bergman (which the musical credits equally, and rather unconvincingly, as its source.) McNally’s carefully calibrated characterization and director Darko Tresnjak’s crafty casting of deep-voiced, hunky Ramin Karimloo (Jean Valjean in Broadway’s recent Les Miz) make Gleb a far more nuanced and sympathetic antagonist than the purple corpse he replaces.
Perhaps inescapably, however, Anastasia nevertheless winds up promoting nostalgia for the last reign of the Romanovs, those elegantly attired autocrats who sponsored pogroms against the Jews and violently suppressed popular Russian calls for democracy.
This admiration for oppressive royalty is especially odd given the creative team behind the musical, book writer McNally, as well as composer Stephen Ahrens and lyricist Lynn Flaherty – unlikely monarchists all. They are the same people who put together Ragtime, a socially conscious musical that covers roughly the same era.
About a half dozen of Ahrens and Flaherty’s songs from the animated movie of Anastasia (including the Oscar-nominated “Journey to the Past”) are supplemented by some two dozen written for the stage musical. If the songs don’t offer the same power or allure as their scores for Ragtime or Once on This Island, they are a clever and melodic enough accompaniment for what is the real strength of this production – its beautiful design and its wonderful cast.
Given the pleasures in this escapist fare largely geared to children, few parents will probably care that we have to endure lines like “Anya survived for a reason: to heal what happened or Russia will be a wound that never heals.”
Anya (the completely lovely Christy Altomare) is an orphan with amnesia who crosses paths with adorable con men Vlad (the priceless John Bolton) and Dmitry (promising leading man Derek Klena), who have been scheming to take advantage of the rumor that Anastasia was the only member of the Romanov royal family to survive the Bolshevik firing squad. They have been holding auditions for the role of Anastasia, to convince the Empress Dowager of Russia, in exile in Paris, that they have found her long-lost granddaughter, and thus collect the reward money. They recruit Anya to pretend to be Anastasia, but it doesn’t take long before it becomes clear that she actually IS Anastasia. She knows things that only Anastasia could know (Her amnesia, a far more convenient and common illness in art than in real life, is apparently cured.) Dmitry and Anya start to fall in love, though they don’t admit it to one another. Meanwhile, superiors have assigned Gleb to track down Anya If she is an imposter, Gleb should bring her back to Russia. If she’s the real Anastasia, he should finish the job started by his father, who was a member of the firing squad who killed her family. Gleb is conflicted; on the one hand, he’s a loyal Soviet apparatchik; on the other hand, he’s looked deeply into Anya’s eyes.
How the plot plays out will surprise no one, but there are some palpable delights along the way
Alexander Dodge’s luscious backdrops of St. Petersburg and Paris aided by Donald Holder’s lighting are more seductive than the best travel poster. Aaron Rhyne’s deliciously dizzying projection designs whoosh us through the countryside as they take the train to Paris and then up the elevator inside the Eiffel Tower. Linda Cho’s costumes convince us that royalty really do live superior lives.
Peggy Hickey’s choreography is most noticeable during a sizable sequence in which we are offered an exquisite ballet from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.
Among the standouts in the cast are Mary Beth Peil, who may be a familiar face on TV (the governor’s sassy mother in The Good Wife) and on stage (her Anna in The King and I in 1985 the first of eight roles on Broadway.) But her performance as the Empress Dowager offers the sort of jolt that accompanies a new discovery. Her voice is strong, her feelings clear; she makes you weep for a Romanov, a neat trick.
A highlight of Anastasia is the heavenly comic pairing in the musical number “The Countess and the Common Man” between John Bolton as Vlad and his old lover at the Russian royal court, Caroline O’Connor as Countess Lily – lady in waiting for the Dowager Empress. McNally assigns Lily one of the lines intended to inject Anastasia with some egalitarian balance with only fitful success: “People don’t want queens anymore,” Lily says. “Well, the English do, but they’re crazy.”
Anastasia is on stage at the Broadhurst Theater (235 W. 44th St., between 7th and 8th Ave, New York, NY 10036)
Anastasia . Book by Terrence McNally; Music by Stephen Flaherty; Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens; Inspired by the motion pictures by 20th Century Fox; Music orchestrated by Doug Besterman . Directed by Darko Tresnjak; Choreographed by Peggy Hickey . Featuring Christy Altomare, Derek Klena, John Bolton, Ramin Karimloo, Caroline O’Connor, Mary Beth Peil, Zach Adkins, Sissy Bell, Lauren Blackman, Kathryn Boswell, Kyle Brown, Kristen Smith Davis, Janet Dickinson, Constantine Germanacos, Wes Hart, Ian Knauer, Ken Krugman, Dustin Layton, Shina Ann Morris, James A. Pierce III, Molly Rushing, Nicole Scimeca, Jennifer Smith, Johnny Stellard, McKayla Twiggs, Allison Walsh. Scenic Design by Alexander Dodge; Costume Design by Linda Cho; Lighting Design by Donald Holder; Sound Design by Peter Hylenski; Projection Design by Aaron Rhyne . Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.