Audience of One Productions' ANASTASIA Takes Audiences On a Journey to the Past

Francesca Noe 's Portrayal of Anya is 'Tempestuous and Fiery,' Max Hunkler's Dmitry is 'Authentically Emotional;'

By: Dec. 05, 2023
Audience of One Productions' ANASTASIA Takes Audiences On a Journey to the Past

Among the myriad reasons to love musical theater, perhaps the most important is the ability of art to transport audiences to worlds as far away as their imagination allows or as close as their heart desires – the worlds of musical theater are far more fanciful, far more imaginative, far more beautiful and intriguing and captivating than the one in which we live our daily lives. There is no art form that can take you on a journey of the mind and spirit quite so effortlessly or impactfully as musical theater can and, particularly at this time of year in which we long for magic and mystery in our lives, there simply is no better creative outlet than musical theater, at least to my way of thinking.

Audience of One Productions' ANASTASIA Takes Audiences On a Journey to the Past
Francesca Noe

May I suggest an exhilarating theatrical adventure, one during which you can take a journey to the past? Audience of One Productions’ stunning Anastasia, now onstage through December 10, at Lebanon’s Capitol Theatre, is the perfect such gateway: Beautifully directed with professionalism and a cinematic flair by Angie Dee, the romantic and historical musical by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty – with an enthralling book by Terrence McNally – is strikingly performed, emphatically sung and lyrically danced by a superb cast of actors who bring the show to life with such style and verve that you are left breathless awaiting their next onstage efforts.

With the expert musical direction of Josh Burfeind which results in a startling performance of the show’s memorable score that is certain to delight fans, whether they are longtime aficionados of the show or, perhaps, have just happened into the theater at the behest of a friend. Likewise, the exquisite choreography by Rachel Hutchins makes the most of the talents of her ensemble, while the Swan Lake choreography (featuring an impressive Zoe Scheiderich as Odette and Ben Brown as Prince Siegfried) by Julia Eichler-Aguilar elevates the production’s dance elements to an even higher performance level.

To be certain, Russia’s enduring and tumultuous history has long fascinated writers, historians, composers and scholars who have sought to divine meaning from the country’s past in order to elucidate contemporary audiences to what has transpired over the centuries. And perhaps no single event in Russian history has provided so much creative fodder than the events of the night of July 16-17, 1918, when the Russian Imperial Romanov family was brutally assassinated by Bolsheviks in Yekaterinburg, the shocking and cataclysmic finale to the Russian revolution that usurped three centuries of Romanov rule and replaced it with a Communist regime. 

Audience of One Productions' ANASTASIA Takes Audiences On a Journey to the Past
Max Hunkler

Since that time, a recurrent theme in literature and the arts has focused on the supposed survival of the youngest of the Tsar’s five daughters – Anastasia Nikolaevna – who some have claimed crawled out from under the bodies of her family members and their most loyal servants, to emerge an amnesiac ultimately trying to reclaim her birthright. There’s the 1956 movie version of her story (written by Arthur Laurents, of Gypsy fame), which starred Ingrid Bergman as young Anna (for which she won the Oscar), Yul Brenner as the manipulative General Bounine, and Helen Hayes as the Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna. In 1997 came the animated musical fantasy drama Anastasia – with Broadway’s Liz Callaway providing the singing voice of Anastasia – which inspired even more interest in the legend of the ill-fated Grand Duchess – in fact, the two film treatments of her story represent a generational divide among cinephiles, each firmly dedicated, if not inspired, by the version they most love. 

Audience of One Productions' ANASTASIA Takes Audiences On a Journey to the Past
Nick Gehring

In 2017, the Broadway musical version of Anastasia debuted, and McNally’s book provides a mesmerizing and engaging tale of a young woman (played in Lebanon by the luminescent Francesca Noe) from the streets of St. Petersburg who survived the Russian Revolution to follow her heart, thanks to the manipulations of two Russian grifters (Max Hunkler and Andy Hutton assay the roles in AOO’s mounting) intent on getting their hands on the inheritance promised the Grand Duchess Anastasia if she does, indeed, prove to be alive and well, as various and sundry legends and rumors would have it. 

McNally, Ahrens and Flaherty play rather fast and loose with the actual events of the Romanovs’ demise, conflating a tale that is more fantasy than facts would allow, but despite that their creation is eminently watchable and thoroughly transportive. The story woven through the almost two-and-one-half hours of musical theater keeps the audience’s collective attention riveted to what happens onstage and no matter how convoluted the tale becomes one cannot help but remain thoroughly enraptured.

Chief among the attributes of this particular Anastasia is its leading lady: Francesca Noe’s tremendous stage presence and lovely voice make her the perfect choice and her spirited portrayal keeps your attention focused on her every second she in onstage. Her onstage chemistry with Hunkler as Dmitry, Hutton as Vlad, Nick Gehring as Gleb, and Key McKinney as The Dowager Empress is a palpable reminder of the alchemy created by a director’s casting decisions. From Noe’s first entrance, looking ever so much like a Russian-bred ragamuffin struggling to eke out a meager existence as a street sweeper, Noe exudes confidence. By the time of the action at the top of Act Two, set in 1927 Paris, she is barely recognizable – she’s transformed into a fashion plate, decked out in a white daytime ensemble that is chic and sophisticated.

Audience of One Productions' ANASTASIA Takes Audiences On a Journey to the Past
Max Hunkler, Andy Hutton and company

Tempestuous and fiery, emotional and moving, Noe propels the action ever-forward, and as Anya falls for Dmitry helping to propel the play’s action ever-forward. As Anya falls for Dmitry (Hunkler), you feel it in your own heart as resolutely as she does in hers. Throughout the show, Noe’s vocal fireworks are certain to make you sit up and take notice, but it is her Act One-closing “Journey to the Past” that is nothing short of extraordinary and provides the perfect artistic high to ensure audiences quickly return from intermission.

Hunkler gives a charming take on Dmitry (the young conman determined to find his own fame and fortune by convincing a young woman to pretend to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia) and creates a beautiful onstage relationship with Noe. Their scenes together crackle with intensity, underscored by a very sweet and heartfelt romanticism that is oftentimes difficult to achieve. Hunkler radiates stage presence throughout his performance and his final scenes are authentically emotional.

Audience of One Productions' ANASTASIA Takes Audiences On a Journey to the Past
The company in "Paris Holds The Key."

Act Two’s opening number – at once wonderfully theatrical and full of showbiz tropes to effectively set the scene – is “Paris Holds the Key (To Your Heart)” and is performed by Noe, Hunkler, Hutton and company with enough pizzazz to equal any bigtime musical theater number ever created. Hunkler and Noe look like any fashionable Parisian couple of the era (it’s 1927) and the numbervreaffirms their growing romance. Their Act One duet of “My Petersburg” exudes just as much warmth and romance, to be honest, even if they are dressed as poverty-ridden streetpeople. 

Audience of One Productions' ANASTASIA Takes Audiences On a Journey to the Past
The company in "Land of Yesterday."

Nick Gehring strikes an authoritative tone as Gleb, the official of the new Russian order, whose brief meeting with Anya in Leningrad (as St. Petersburg is known in the aftermath of the revolution) ensures he is totally smitten with the winsome young woman. Gehring cuts a dashing figure, even in his somewhat drab Red Army uniform, but his appealing charm makes him an audience favorite, nonetheless. Gleb’s demonstrable loyalty to duty and homeland is genuine, which makes his final scene with Anya even more dramatic in recollection. 

Hutton is amusingly droll and self-centered as Vlad, the final member of the triumvirate who’ve made their way to Paris in order to finagle the Dowager Empress’ endorsement, and it is that performance that allows him chance to show off his estimable stage. In Act Two, his delicious scenes with the thoroughly delightful Bonny Davis as his long-lost love Countess Lily (the lady-in-waiting to the Dowager) inject a sense of charm and levity into the sometimes dour proceedings in Anastasia. As a result, “The Countess and the Common Man” is one of the show’s standout moments. 

Audience of One Productions' ANASTASIA Takes Audiences On a Journey to the Past
Scarlett Collins and Key McKinney

McKinney is expressively regal and guardedly emotional throughout her scenes as The Dowager Empress, capturing the imperious tone of her character with a graceful aplomb. When she strides into Anya’s hotel room to confront the young woman she is certain to be an impostor, the moment takes on a sense of unexpected gravitas thanks to her regal bearing and maternal demeanor.

Among the sizable ensemble of actors playing any number of roles in the production, Lisa Graham is particularly notable as the Empress Alexandra (she’s never looked more beautiful on stage) and she is paired with the handsome Cory Bond, who looks enough like Tsar Nicholas II (right down to the emperor’s moustache) onstage to make you take a second look.

Dee, Burfeind and Hutchins are to be commended for the way they integrate the members of the ensemble throughout the show, creating the illusion of a much bigger and grander production – you walk away from the theater thinking you’ve seen a cast of thousands onstage. Along with the technical wizardry of the production, not the least of which is due to the gorgeous projections by Broadway Media Projections and the work of artist Trinity Todd are certain to inspire and impress.

Anastasia. Book by Terrence McNally. Music by Stephen Flaherty. Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. Inspired by the Twentieth Century Fox motion pictures. Directed by Angie Dee. Musical direction by Josh Burfeind. Choreography by Rachel Hutchins. Stage managed by Isaac Osipchuk and Rachel Vanatta. Presented by Audience of One Productions. At The Capitol Theatre, Lebanon. Through Sunday, December 10. For tickets and for more information, go to www.AudienceOfOneProductions.com. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (with one intermission).  

Photos by Hayley Ryan



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