BWW Review: New Musical ANASTASIA in World Premiere at Hartford Stage Company

BWW Review: New Musical ANASTASIA in World Premiere at Hartford Stage Company

A distinguished creative team has hit it big with a rousing, new, heart-warming version of ANASTASIA, premiering currently at the Hartford Stage Company. Visually spectacular and beautifully sung, the complicated story unrolls seamlessly against the backdrop of early 20th century European history, engagingly presented. This show has appeal for romantics and history buffs and musical comedy fans and dance aficionados and features no fewer than four strong female figures for audiences to identify with; in short, it's a potential blockbuster, for all kinds of worthy reasons.

The story is based in the long-rumored survival of one of Tsar Nicholas' daughters. In this version, two charming con men try to locate a girl they might pass off in Paris as the real Anastasia to her grandmother, the Dowager Empress of Russia-and thereby lay claim to the sizeable reward on offer.

Though inspired by the animated Fox Motion picture from 1997, the book here has been substantially rewritten by Terrence McNally. He (thankfully) does away with the film's odd version of Rasputin in favor of more historical references, setting Act 1 in St. Petersburg and moving swiftly from 1906 to 1917 and the Bolshevik revolution and then on to 1927 and the hard days of the early Soviet economy, before transferring the action to the cultural hub of Paris for Act 2.

Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens wrote music and lyrics for the Fox film and have reunited here to extend their work. They've kept about a half dozen songs from the film but added another 18 or so in a rich array of styles. Much of the story telling is accomplished in song, and every word comes through with precision in Hartford: kudos to the balance achieved between singers and the live orchestra conducted by Thomas Murray.

As directed by Darko Tresnjak, who won the 2014 Tony for direction of a musical (A GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER), Act 1 is flawless in pace and execution. We're introduced to Anastasia at age 6 (Nicole Scimeca) and her Grandmother, the Dowager Empress (played by the distinguished Mary Beth Peil). They open the show with a duet familiar from the film ("Once Upon a December"), as "Nana" leaves her favorite granddaughter the gift of a music box with circling ballerinas before departing for Paris. The splendor and formality of the Tsar's court are convincingly enacted in a formal ball that swiftly transitions into a similar ball a decade later, in 1917. This one ends violently with explosions signaling the revolution.

That marks the first full use of the spectacular video projections that add so enormously to the visual richness of this show. I've never seen a fuller or more effective use of projections. Credited to Aaron Rhyne, these are state-of-the-art animated scenes that wheel and rotate and will eventually carry us across Europe by train. They provide the visual punch necessary for a grand reveal of Paris in the final moments of Act 1. Colorful and magical, they also conjure up ghostly figures when necessary, adding tones of nightmare and mystery. Aided by the triple turn table set designed by Alexander Dodge, the sheer array of looks achieved in this proscenium show is stunning. I wager the visuals alone will keep even young audience members raised on movies fully captivated.

The weight of the show rests on the diminutive figure of Anya, played here by the remarkable and engaging Christy Altomare, who sings most feelingly. We meet her first in 1927, working as a street sweeper in St. Petersburg, unable to remember any of her childhood before the orphanage she left in her late teens. Passionate and quick-witted, she has learned to protect herself; she is far more responsible for her own choices than the typical ingénue.

She's spotted by young Dmitry (Derek Klena) and older Vlad Popov (John Bolton), two con men who are just scraping by in St. Petersburg (now renamed Leningrad, of course). They take her under their wing and teach her what Anastasia -- if she exists -- would be expected to know. Their trio "Learn to Do It" parallels both the charm and the plot functions that "The Rain in Spain" does in MY FAIR LADY.

Anya is also spotted by the show's antagonist, Gleb (Manoel Felciano) a mid-level soviet functionary charged with running a division of the Leningrad government. A tortured figure attempting to maintain control, he's plagued by his own childhood memories from the time that his father served as guard to the Tsar's family, up through their basement execution. Thus the cultural conflicts inherent in the historical period are given personal force.

There are quite a few fine musical moments. The most moving song, for me, was "Stay, I Pray You," an ensemble number which begins a cappella with a solo voice (Constantine Germanacos) picking a note out of the air, and develops into a lament for the abandoned homeland. It's gorgeous and sad.

The showstopper at the top of Act 2 is just a hoot. Called "Paris Holds the Key (To Your Heart)", it includes tongue-in-cheek cameos by a whole host of famous folk: Isadora Duncan, Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Josephine Baker, Coco Chanel, Django Reinhardt, etc. This is goofily affectionate homage to old-style Broadway.

Later in Act 2, the best duet goes to the middle-aged song and dance duo of Popov (Bolton) and the displaced Countess Lily Malevsky-Malevitch (Caroline O'Connor), who attends on the Dowager Empress in Paris. She's a hot ticket, and headlines at the Russian expat bar and nightclub when off duty. As played by the international star Caroline O'Connor, she's as knowing and sexy and funny as they come. This performance completes the quartet of fetching females: charming child Anastasia, spunky Anya, wicked Lily, and warmly authoritative Dowager Empress. Go ahead, try to resist.

But we're not done with the superlatives yet. Choreographer Peggy Hickey has tapped the widest array of dance styles I've ever seen in one show. I may have missed a few, but in addition to characteristic bits by Josephine and Isadora, I saw mazurka, troika, waltz, polka, Charleston, can can, tango, and ballet -- as well as that hybrid form called Broadway dance.

In fact, one of the most ambitious and multi-layered moments in Act 2 happens at a performance of the Russian ballet, touring SWAN LAKE. Here a goodly bit of true ballet (with a three member corps, an Odette, and two princes) unrolls before our lucky eyes even as a quartet in the box seats sings of conflict (Anya, Dimitry, Gleb, and the Empress) over Tchaikovsky's score, interwoven with the theme of the lullaby "Once Upon a December." I like theater where there's more that's meaningful going on at once than I can fully take in on a single viewing, so this scene rang my bell.

Act 2 is not as perfect as Act 1, which is common in theater. I'll hope that, by the time this show lands on Broadway, as it is already and deservedly slated to do, some fix will have been found for two moments in the second act where the human drama slops over into melodrama. But these are minor quibbles in what is a thoroughly original and delightful and worthy musical night.

The talents that have come together here each seem to be operating at peak. That the show is so cohesive and well-coordinated owes much, I wager, to Tresnjak's directorial skills. His own story, as a child immigrant to this country, is part of what gives him an insider's feel for Anya. And his love for Shakespeare's great young women characters of the late romances (Marina in PERICLES, Miranda in TEMPEST, Perdita in THE WINTER'S TALE) means that he knows what makes for a magical mix of seriousness and transport. He's the right chef for this theatrical concoction.

ANASTASIA lasts just under three hours, including intermission. It plays in Hartford through June 19th. But this won't be its only run.

photo by Joan Marcus

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