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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 24, 2017

Anastasia Book by Terrence McNally. Music by Stephen Flaherty. Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. Inspired by the Twentieth Century Fox Motion Picture. Directed by Darko Tresnjak. Choreographed by Peggy Hickey. Musical supervisor & musical director/conductor Tom Murray. Commissioned by Dmitry Bogachev. 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. Hair/wig design by Charles G. LaPointe. Makeup design by Joe Dulude II. Orchestrations by Doug Besterman. Cast: 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, Johnny Stellard, McKayle Twiggs, Allison Walsh, Beverly Ward.
Theatre: Broadhurst Theatre, 235 West 44th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Tickets: Telecharge

Derek Klena and Christy Altomare
Photo by Matthew Murphy

It's no wonder that the story of Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna Romanova continues to fascinate a century after her death: Hers is one of the few modern fairy tales everyone wants to believe in. The youngest daughter of Russia's final tsar, Nicholas II, not killed as is popularly accepted, but instead escaping the slaughter of her family during the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and lying in wait to reclaim the crown and esteem that are rightfully hers? It's reality, fantasy, magic, suspense, and more all wrapped up in one glittery package that has proven prime fodder for movies, plays, and musicals over the last handful of decades. And chances are that the inoffensive but middling latest incarnation of the tale, titled Anastasia, which just opened at the Broadhurst, won't be the last.

The musical, which features a book by Terrence McNally and a score by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, is based on the 1997 Don Bluth animated film of the same title, which recast the legend for the G-rated set. This involved downplaying the politics and shifting the blame from the murderous Cheka secret police to the sorcerer Rasputin (who was tied to the Romanovs), who was accompanied by a dopey bat familiar. There was still sufficient foundation for explaining how the girl-who-may-be-queen, going by the name of Anya, fell in with the con man Dimitri in an attempt to get close to the Dowager Empress (Nicholas's mother), prove her claim, and acquire the title (and its inheritance), and a selection of tuneful and ingratiating Ahrens-and-Flaherty songs.

Wisely, the writers, in also incorporating elements from the 1956 film (which Arthur Laurents adapted from Marcelle Maurette and Guy Bolton's 1955 play) and dramatic common sense, have jettisoned the Rasputin nonsense for the stage version and restored some semblance of history to this tale. The opening sequence now depicts the overthrow of the Romanovs, making explicitly clear what happened and who was responsible. When the action moves forward 10 years, to 1927, villainy duties have been assigned to a representative of the Cheka, named Gleb, who is tasked with assessing and eliminating Anastasia but finds himself captivated by Anya. This supercharges the immediacy of the con the respelled Dmitry and his bumbling cohort, Vlad, may or may not be running with the girl, and ensures that humanity, with all of its latent uncertainty and loss, is always well in view.

Ramin Karimloo and Christy Altomare
Photo by Matthew Murphy

For all these smart changes, however, this Anastasia fails to completely escape the influence of its cartoony forebear. There's no way to accurately relate the Communist uprising, and the thousands (ultimately millions) of deaths that went along with it, while maintaining the façade of this kind of family musical, yet those involved here are determined to have it both ways. This ensures that the ideologically imposed poverty the crippled Russia is a background at best, mentioned in passing but not deeply felt; the violence must remain largely offstage; the onstage threats can only be so threatening (the tensest occurs at the end of Act I, as Anya, Dmitry, and Vlad try to escape Russia first by train and then on foot, with the authorities close at heel); and the bad guys can only be so bad, with Gleb, despite who he works for, naturally demonstrating his hidden heart of gold before evening's end. This telling may be more adult, but it's still not really adult.

If it were, after all, there wouldn't be room for the songs everyone already knows and couldn't bear to not hear again. Chief among these is Anya's belty showstopper "Journey to the Past," which here closes Act I as the trio closes in on Paris, but there's also the haunting "Once Upon a December" (linking the Dowager Empress with her granddaughter); the "Rain in Spain"-like "Learn to Do It," as Dmitry and Vlad instruct Anya in the ways of the upper classes; the exposition-dispensing "A Rumor in St. Petersburg"; and "Paris Holds the Key (to Your Heart)," the incongruous but infectious tribute to the City of Lights that opens Act II.

Most of the new songs (of which there are many) are more functional in nature, establishing the more serious atmosphere, building up Gleb, and otherwise rounding out the plot with the smooth talent you'd expect from the team behind the scores for Once on This Island and Ragtime. But although they fit seamlessly in with the older numbers (due in part to Doug Besterman's splendid, if poppy, orchestrations and Tom Murray's musical direction), none of the new ones is as memorable. Efforts to capitalize on traditional musical-theatre tropes doesn't help, either, with the beefed-up presence of the Dowager Countess's confidante, Countess Lily (Sophie in the movie), consuming huge chunks of the second act, apparently only so the charismatic actress playing her, Caroline O'Connor, can inject humor into the proceedings. (Not that her class-tweaking humor is especially funny, but boy does she ever try.)

Nicole Scimeca and Mary Beth Peil
Photo by Matthew Murphy

The performers all work hard, but except for Mary Beth Peil, who plays the Dowager Countess, their style is hard-sell 2017 Broadway that never quite sits comfortably, let alone elegantly, on the material. Peil's portrayal is heavy on the stiff back and stiffer lip, reinforcing the crippling impact the obliteration of the Dowager Countess's kin has had on her, and her slow melting and warming to the possibility that Anya is who she claims to be is a joy to watch. Christy Altomare sounds wonderful as Anya, and nicely blends her caginess and innocence (and matches well with Nicole Scimeca, giving a sweet performance as the younger Anastasia), and Derek Klena is appealingly scrappy as Dmitry. John Bolton piles on the ham rather heavily as Vlad and Ramin Karimloo the Javert rather heavily as Gleb, but everything is technically proficient. It's just also too vanilla to linger long in your mind, or at all in your heart.

At least Darko Tresnjak's staging is slick, handsome, and fast-moving, and it meshes easily with Peggy Hickey's subdued choreography. Although Alexander Dodge's palace-themed unit set hints at authenticity, it strains against some of the scenic weight it must bear, and doesn't always mesh well with Aaron Rhyne's spectacular, detailed motion projections (which depict explosions, peasant marches, the verdant French countryside, and everything in between). But Linda Cho's costume plot is vast and lavish, loaded with billowy ball gowns and attractive-but-not-too-attractive rags, and the clothes sparkle tastily beneath Donald Holder's sprawling lighting setup. The designs throughout just tend to look right, whether they're depicting what was or what is.

To communicate the full brunt of what's at stake, however, McNally, Ahrens, and Flaherty needed to go further than they did—further, one suspects, than being shackled to the movie ever could have made possible. To do justice to Anastasia's story, there must be genuine risks, genuine losses, and genuine feelings that go beyond surface-level, cookie-cutter emotions and their matching songs. The writers have done what they could with what they have, and it works well enough within its own limited sphere. But the agonizing scope of the destruction of one way of life in favor of another, the armies on both sides struggling to protect what they have and gain ground wherever they can, and the thin current of hope Anya represents for both can't all coexist in a musical that's less willing to echo Les Misérables than it is Beauty and the Beast.


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