By Donna Herman
Anastasia, is a perfectly crafted Broadway musical fairy-tale that is going to run forever. Family-friendly, romantic, glittery, great sets and costumes, show-stopping second banana (Caroline O’Connor I’m looking at you), and songs the audience already knows and loves. Wait, what? It’s billed as an original musical with book by noted playwright Terrence McNally, and music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, the duo who brought us “Ragtime”, and oh yes, the animated movie musical “Anastasia.”
If you read the fine print in the Playbill under the writing credits in small print it says “Inspired by the Twentieth Century Fox Motion Pictures.” There were two of them, a live-action film starring Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brenner in 1956, and the animated musical in 1997, which was the Fox Animation Studios most profitable film ever. Ah. Ding, ding, ding. Move over Disney, if you can do it, why can’t Fox?
How about the fact that they’re billing it as an “original” musical with a “new score” that’s “inspired” by the movies? Most of the songs are the same, and the plot is largely the same with a few different characters. But, there is a new score. Which is the background music that plays under, around and between the scenes. Like in a movie. And, the character of Rasputin has been done away with from the animated film, and a new, softer villain introduced. A Soviet soldier, Deputy Commissioner Gleb Vaganov (Ramin Karimloo), who chases Anya/Anastasia (Christy Altomare) to Paris with orders to kill or capture her, but cannot find it in his heart to do so. As if.
Which brings us to the meat of the matter. The subject matter, that is. The big difference between the movies and the stage musical is time and science. When the movies were made, the true story of Anastasia was still a mystery and fair game for whatever invention or interpretation could be put on it. But in 2007, it was proved conclusively through DNA testing of remains found, that Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna was murdered along with the rest of her imperial family in Yekaterinburg, Russia by Bolshevik secret police.
But the Broadway Anastasia, is a fairy tale, where the beautiful young princess (alright, Grand Duchess but you know all the little girls are going to want to be “Princess Anastasia”), manages to escape a dreadful fate, but winds up with amnesia. She meets a handsome pauper Dmitry (Derek Klena), who, despite growing up on the streets without parents is kind, clean, wily, brave and has a heart of gold. Oh, and he has a best friend Vlad (John Bolton) who used to pretend to be a Count and knows all the intimate details of the Imperial family. How convenient. They teach her everything she needs to know and her memory starts to come back – she is the real Anastasia. She begins to believe, as do they. She also meets Gleb, the Soviet soldier who warns her not to get involved with any plots. Pursued by police, they get to Paris, where her grandmother the Dowager Empress (Mary Beth Peil) has been languishing and hoping the rumors she is alive are true. After an initial struggle to get the Empress to see her, she does, they reunite, Gleb finds her but can’t kill her. Anastasia has an ah-ha moment and runs to find Dimitry. Who has left after refusing the reward for her return upon realizing that returning her to her family is all the reward he needs. They meet, kiss, and walk off into the sunset. The Empress announces that there is no Anastasia, wink, wink, so they can live in peace.
Anastasia, and it’s movie predecessors, are fictional versions of the life of one of the many women who claimed to be the surviving Grand Duchess Anastasia, Anna Anderson. There was a £10,000,000 account of Tsar Nicholas II at stake in Britain so many were tempted to make the attempt. The most widely known claimant, Anna Anderson, first came to light in Berlin in 1922. This was after attempting suicide and a stay in a mental institution there in 1920. She brought a 40 year court case in Germany that ended in a deadlock. Her claim could be “neither established nor refuted.” She was a troubled woman, in and out of sanitoriums. She wound up emigrating to the US in 1968 and marrying a history professor in Charlottesville, VA. She maintained until the day she died in 1984 that she was, indeed, Anastasia.
The house was packed the night I saw it, and the audience went out of their minds with every single song. There was a huge standing ovation, and Christy Altomare who played Anastasia was weeping at the curtain call. I was dazed and confused by the enthusiasm all around me. I admit to walking in with doubts about how they were going to handle the facts that had been uncovered since the inspirational pieces were done. And I admit to being a total and complete romantic. I read romance novels like they’re going out of style (shhh, don’t tell anyone). But I guess my ability to delude myself about what’s real and what’s fantasy is in pretty short supply these days. I just can’t pretend that what’s actually happened, you know, real people getting murdered, didn’t happen and it’s all ok.
Anastasia, Book by Terrence McNally, Music by Stephen Flaherty, Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, Directed by Darko Tresnjak
WITH: Nicole Scimeca (Little Anastasia/Alexei Romanov); Mary Beth Peil (Dowager Empress); Lauren Blackman (Tsarina Alexandra); Constantine Germanacos (Tsar Nicholas II/Count Ipolitov); Molly Rushing (Young Anastasia/Paulina); Sissy Bell (Maria Romanov/Marfa); Allison Walsh (Olga Romanov/Odette in Swan Lake); Shina Ann Morris (Tatiana Romanov/Dunya); Caroline O’Connor (Countess Lily); Ramin Karimloo (Gleb); Derek Klena (Dmitry); John Bolton (Vlad); Christy Altomare (Anya/Anastasia); Ken Krugman (Gorlinsky/Count Leopold); Wes Hart (Doorman); Kyle Brown (Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake); James A. Pierce III (Von Rothbart in Swan Lake); Zach Adkins (Ensemble); Janet Dickinson (Ensemble); Johnny Stellard (Ensemble); Beverly Ward (Ensemble).
Musical Supervisor & Musical Director/Conductor, Tom Murray; Choreographed by Peggy Hickey; Scenic Design by Alexander Dodge; Costume Design by Linda Cho; Lighting Design by Donald Holder; Sound Design by Peter Hylenski; Video & Projection Design by Aaron Rhyne; Wig/Hair Design by Charles G. LaPointe; Makeup Design by Joe Dulude II; Orchestrations by Doug Besterman; Dance Arranger, David Chase; Music Coordinator, Michael Keller & Michael Aarons, Casting by Telsey + Company; Production Stage Manager, Bonnie Panson; Stage Manager, Trey Johnson; Original Commission by Dmitry Bogachev; Producer, Stage Entertainment; Producer, Bill Taylor; Producer, Tom Kirdahy. Broadhurst Theatre, 235 West 44th Street. For tickets: 212-239-6200 or visit: www.anastasiabroadway.com; or visit the box office at the theater: Mon-Sat 10am-8pm; Sun 12-6pm.