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BWW Interview: Gerri Weagraff of ANASTASIA at Hennepin Theatre Trust

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Russian-set musicals figure highly in this actor's nontraditional path to the tour stage

BWW Interview: Gerri Weagraff of ANASTASIA at Hennepin Theatre Trust ANASTASIA, the new Broadway musical, is playing its second week on the stage of the historic Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, bringing a fresh take on an old tale that is comforting and easy to watch as audiences adjust to returning to the theatre and enduring the continuing pandemic. Actor Gerri Weagraff (Dowager Empress) took time to share her thoughts on the production and how she got to this stage of her life, literally. She took a path to this national tour many of us in the local theatre community can perhaps identify with as she made it her third career, later in life.

Can you describe the musical ANASTASIA's storyline and your part in it?

Anastasia The Musical is an epic adventure filled with romance, mystery, suspense and comedy - something for everybody! Set in 1927 Russia and Paris, it tells the story of a brave, determined young woman named Anya who can't remember who she is but is haunted by vague memories of a past. She sets out on a journey to find someone she believes is waiting for her in Paris; to find "love, home, family." It's been about 10 years since the execution of the last ruling royal Romanov family, but rumors persist that the youngest Romanov daughter, Anastasia, survived the execution. Two con men decide that Anya is the perfect candidate to groom to pose as Anastasia, so that they can earn the reward offered by Anastasia's grandmother for Anastasia's safe return. I play the role of the grandmother, the Dowager Empress. When the show begins, it is 1907, and the Dowager Empress is moving to Paris - as she says goodbye to young Anastasia, she gives her granddaughter a music box so the child will remember her.

I went down a Wikipedia rabbit hole that helped me to learn the story of the real Anastasia and her family but this is a fictional take on the legend that surrounded them for decades. Can you talk a little about the book Terrence McNally wrote for this show and how the storytelling is different than the animated film that people may be familiar with?

Though the basic plots of the 1997 animated film and the stage version are similar, the show's script has been instilled with more historical realism. The musical eliminates the magical, supernatural elements of the film and puts more emphasis on politics and the rise of the Bolsheviks. Instead of Rasputin as the antagonist (and his sidekick bat Bartok), the musical is more deeply rooted in Russian history, depicting the radical changes that took place in that country between 1917 and 1927. Rasputin is replaced by Bolshevik general Gleb Vaganov, who represents Russia's new regime, and who has orders to do away with Anastasia. In the musical, the backstory of the charming opportunist Dmitry is also a bit different (and more fleshed out) than in the animated film. The characters of Vlad and the Dowager are also given more background and depth. A few of the most iconic songs from the animated film are in the stage production, with more than a dozen new songs added.

Gerri Weagraff (Dowager Empress) and Kyla Stone (Anya) in The North American Tour of ANASTASIA - Photo by Jeremy Daniel

You sing "Once Upon a December"... what do you think about this song and others in the musical? Which song is your favorite tune from the show, and why?

I love how the song "Once Upon a December" recurs as a musical motif throughout the show, as the mystery of Anya's past is gradually revealed. It's the tune played when the music box is opened - a gentle lullaby that the Dowager Empress and Anastasia sing together at the beginning of the show, a song known only to the two of them. That sweet tune from the prologue then transforms into a major production number in the middle of Act 1 when the music box causes Anya's memories to burst forth. Anya and the Dowager reprise the song at the end of a key scene in Act 2 as the tune once again symbolizes memories and identity, and the motif comes full circle as the song is sung by the entire company at the end of the show.

It's hard to pick a favorite number from the show - I love them all! Of course, "Once Upon a December" holds a special place in my heart because of its significance to my character. I love "In a Crowd of Thousands" for its beautiful melody and the way the lyrics reveal the connection that Anya and Dmitry had when they were children. "Stay, I Pray You" is another favorite of mine as a profound anthem portraying the heartache and hope felt by those fleeing their homeland. I adore "Countess and the Common Man" because it's so funny! I love "Journey to the Past" as Anya expresses her desires and dreams (and it's a breathtaking way to end Act I).

You have also toured with FIDDLER ON THE ROOF nationally - are you drawn to Russian musical stories? (Ha ha...) Light joking aside, how did you get involved in this tour and how has it been going so far touring during the continuing pandemic?

Definitely a strange coincidence that my two tours were set in early 20th Century Russia, albeit two very different worlds! My connection to the stage musical Anastasia goes back to 2017 when it premiered on Broadway. My son's girlfriend (now fiancée) was in the original Broadway cast of Anastasia, and I saw the show in September of that year and loved it. The Dowager Empress character made a huge impression on me. There aren't many musical theater roles this rich and this pivotal for women in their 60s and 70s. I remember saying that I would love to play the Dowager some day. I felt it was a role very much suited to my type. When I saw a casting call in March 2020 for the tour, I immediately requested an audition. My first audition was March 11, 2020, just a few days before the pandemic shutdown. I submitted a videotaped callback a week later, then it was put on hold for more than a year due to Covid. After the process resumed in April of this year, I was asked to attend a final callback in early July, and I received the offer to play the Dowager Empress a few weeks after that.

Like many industries, theater has been so adversely affected by the pandemic and has still not fully recovered; many of those who make their living in theater are still unemployed. Thanks to vaccines, regular Covid testing, masking, and other precautions, touring during the continuing pandemic is possible. Our preview show in Evans, Georgia, on Oct. 15 was the first time I had performed in a show in 21 months - the longest stretch I had gone without doing theater in more than 35 years. That show was electrifying and emotional: not only was it a return to live theater for us in the profession, but it was also the first show that many in the audience had seen since before Covid. For these first few months of our tour this fall, Anastasia has been the season opener after the Covid shutdown. We can sense the appreciation and joy that it is bringing to audience members across the country!

Your theatre career came after doing some other jobs and you have a history of community and regional theatre. Can you share what it's been like transitioning to being a full-time actor on tour with a less traditional path to this level of theatre?

My love for musical theater developed by watching my parents perform in community theater in the Philadelphia suburbs. After doing my first show at age 16 - Fiddler on the Roof with Drexel Hill Players - I was bitten by the theater bug. But I never considered pursuing it as a career. Instead, I majored in Spanish in college, and during the summers, I performed with a wonderful youth theater group called Upper Darby Summer Stage. After graduating from college, I worked full time, first as a radio newscaster, and then as a public relations coordinator for a nonprofit agency, while occasionally performing in community theater and dinner theater. In 1986, I met my husband Paul in another community theater production of Fiddler. We were cast as Tzeitel and Motel, and my mother played Yente! Paul and I married in 1988, had two children by 1992, and continued to do theater as a hobby while working in non-theater jobs.

When our kids were 5 and 7 years old, the four of us were cast in a production of The Music Man, and from that point on, performing in theater was our shared family passion. I had every intention of continuing to work in nonprofit public relations while doing theater "on the side" for the rest of my life. But in 2010, the year our youngest graduated from high school, on a whim, I submitted my headshot and resume for one of the older women roles in a Fiddler on the Roof national tour. On the day we moved our son into his freshman dorm room, I got an offer for the tour. So at age 53, with the support of my husband and children, I started a third career as a full-time actor, something I'd always dreamed about, but never imagined would become reality. When the Fiddler tour ended in 2012, instead of returning to my previous fields of work, I continued on the full-time actor path. I've been working at regional theaters and dinner theaters ever since, never dreaming I'd have the chance to do another tour. And here I am!

That's inspirational! What other role or roles are on your bucket list after you complete the ANASTASIA tour next year?

I'm not sure I can top this one! But other roles I've wanted to play are Bertha in Pippin and Mother Gothel in Tangled if there will ever be a non-cruise stage production of it! And I'd love to reprise a few roles I've played before, such as Hannah in The Spitfire Grill and Phyllis in Follies.

6 Quick Hits

  1. Favorite community theatre role: Gooch in Mame
  2. Best tour audience you've had: All of our audiences have been wonderful, but I'll say Philadelphia, because I'm from that area and more than 100 friends and family came to see the show that week!
  3. What are you reading? "Trying to be Cool" - a book written by my cousin
  4. Favorite holiday? Thanksgiving
  5. If you weren't acting now, what would you be doing? professional dogwalker
  6. What charity or cause do you support? No-kill animal shelters

Bio

Gerri Weagraff (Dowager Empress) is thrilled to be touring with this wonderful cast and crew, telling this beautiful story! National Tour: Fiddler on the Roof (Golde). Regional: Arizona Broadway Theatre, Surflight Theatre, Beef & Boards, Fireside, Candlelight Theatre. Credits: Into the Woods (Cinderella's Stepmother), Show Boat (Parthy Hawks), The Spitfire Grill (Hannah), Bright Star (Mama Murphy), Lend Me a Tenor (Julia). Many thanks to Jason Styres casting and the Anastasia creative team, and to my husband Paul, my children, family, and friends for their love and support! www.gerriweagraff.com

More info

ANASTASIA plays the historic Orpheum Theatre through Dec. 19, 2021, Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m. More details and tickets are available at HennepinTheatreTrust.org. Prices start at $40.

Connect with ANASTASIA online at:

www.anastasiathemusical.com

Twitter: @AnastasiaBway

Facebook: AnastasiaBway

Instagram: @AnastasiaBway

Photos

Gerri Weagraff headshot and Gerri Weagraff (Dowager Empress) and Kyla Stone (Anya) in The North American Tour of ANASTASIA - Photo by Jeremy Daniel. Courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust.


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