Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are pleased to present the following review of ANASTASIA at Hartford Stage
Through June 19th
Anastasia photos by Joan Marcus
It was the world premiere of the new musical Anastasia at Hartford Stage, and in a word, it felt as if we were experiencing a landmark moment in theatre history – there to witness something legendary. The energy was electric and expectations were high – high because not only was a potential new classic in musical theatre about to unfold, but renowned and highly respected industry professionals were behind it – a true dream team with countless Tony Awards between them. With book by the man deemed “one of America’s most important playwrights,” the one and only Terrence McNally; music and lyrics by power duo Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, respectively; mesmerizing choreography by Peggy Hickey; direction by the acclaimed, master of the boards Darko Tresnjak (and ever-prescient Artistic Director of Hartford Stage); and in collaboration with Stage Entertainment USA and Tom Kirdahy Productions, we were delighted beyond our wildest imagination. In fact we could hardly contain ourselves!
Anastasia: A New Musical is a fresh take on an old story – a tale which dates back to the early twentieth century and blends fact with fiction about young protagonist Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanov, the fourth and youngest daughter to Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra. When the entire royal family is executed in 1918 by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution, many including her grandmother, Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, hold out hope that somehow Anastasia survived – and numerous young women step forth claiming to be her. The story goes on to chronicle a young amnesiac street cleaner’s chance meeting with con men Dmitry and Vlad Popov, who groom the naïve Anya before whisking her off to reunite with (and attempt to fool) woeful Nana who is safely ensconced in the warmth and wonder of Le Gai Paris.
In my lifetime I’ve seen countless dramatic plays and musicals, but few if any can compare to what took place on Connecticut’s Hartford Stage last weekend. With a 100% spot-on cast whose acting is perfection, whose singing is unparalleled, whose dancing is breathtaking, and whose comedic timing is impeccable; with sets and staging that are so vibrant, dynamic, elegant, and make phenomenal use of multi-media elements; with costumes that are absolutely spectacular, evoking all of the feeling and fancy of that historical epoch; and with direction that is downright flawless, it is unequivocally everything you could wish to experience in musical theatre.
Christy Altomare as Anya is utterly enchanting. She is every bit the songbird, captivating the audience with her lilting soprano, and she floats across the stage like she was born with wings. Her partners in crime if you will, rascals Derek Klena as Dmitry and John Bolton as Vlad are phenomenal in all ways. Klena is passionate and powerful one moment and buoyant and playful the next. Bolton is the convincing and conniving shyster with a heart, often leaving you in stitches with just a smirk or nod of his head. The troika is magic from the moment they appear on stage together.
Mary Beth Peil as the regal Dowager Empress is exquisite. She is the doting Nana, but also the stubborn and outspoken royal. She is alternately hopeful and despondent in her quest to find her long-lost granddaughter. Manoel Felciano as Gleb is the dastardly foil, eager to thwart the threesome’s efforts to flee Russia and get to Paris to help Anya take her (potentially) rightful place as Anastasia.
Taking the second act and Paris by storm is Caroline O’Connor as Countess Lily Melvsky-Melevitch – this woman is a triple-threat-plus-one with her singing, acting, and dancing, adding to it her uproarious comedic ability. She is so vivacious and animated, she nearly steals every scene. The renewal of her former romance with Vlad (in the number “The Countess and the Common Man”) provides downright laugh-out-loud-rolling-on-the-floor hysterics.
This cast of nearly 30 play about 40 roles – and each add to the vivacity and spirit of the production. It would be nearly impossible to name everyone, but when the play opens with Nicole Scimeca as young Anastasia (age 6) I already knew I was in for a treat. She was outstanding in the ways that I believe truly talented children are able to contribute their gifts to any show.
There is just so much that is terrific about Anastasia, it feels as if I’m bubbling over, but I don’t want to give too much away. There really is something for everyone in its opulence – romance, drama, action, and a bit of mystery. It is robust and creative. It is sorrowful and tragic and at the same time it is inspiring. Told partly through dialog and in great part through song, McNally along with Flaherty and Ahrens created a splendid story that never lost momentum. It would appear that McNally had great fun with some awesome quips and one-liners, but in sum, it was a story with depth and heart. Flaherty and Ahrens crafted innumerable new numbers while keeping in some of the classics from the 1997 animated Twentieth Century Fox film, among them “Once Upon a December,” “Journey to the Past,” “Learn to Do It,” and “Paris Holds the Key (to Your Heart).” I loved the film, and watched it many times with my children, but the stage musical far surpasses either of its predecessors (including the Anatole Litvak 1956 live-action film). Among my personal favorite scenes are when Anya, Dimitry, and Vlad are on the train fleeing Russia in “Traveling Sequence”; when the troika arrive in Paris with “Paris Holds the Key…”; when Vlad and Lily reunite (“The Countess…”); and “Quartet at the Ballet” which incorporates a portion of the inimitable Swan Lake.
And I cannot not mention many of the component parts of the sumptuous Anastasia gestalt – Peggy Hickey provided the cast with richly creative direction through her incredible choreography. The scenic design by Alexander Dodge blew my mind with its stunning moveable arches and other pieces, and pristine set dressing, adding to it the dynamic video & projection design by Aaron Rhyne. I won’t spoil, but the use of the train at the end of Act 1 was beyond compare. Costumes were among the crème de la crème of all theatre garb, designed by Linda Cho, complemented by wig and hair by Charles G. LaPointe. Lighting by Donald Holder and sound by Peter Hylenski perfectly contributed to the production’s overall magnificence. One also cannot leave out musical direction by Thomas Murray and the extraordinary 16-piece orchestra.
What Anastasia delivers, taken from a bitter and tragic part of history, is a yarn which is offset by soul-nourishing hopes and dreams – food and fuel for life. In the years from its conception to its birth on Hartford’s stage, the utmost attention to detail has been paid. Each interconnecting element added to the overall beauty and success of the work. I am amazed, awestruck, and also thrilled to have been a part of its infancy and cannot wait to see it again when it graces Broadway’s boards! Since I’ve run out of adjectives…I’ll simply say, Don’t miss this!
I need to change the principal paradigm I have been operating under. As with most people, I believed that the only sure things in life were death and taxes. After seeing Hartford Stage’s new musical Anastasia, I need to create a new paradigm adding another eventual certainty in life: that Anastasia will go to Broadway and sweep the Tony Awards. If I were a betting man (and I am) I would love to bet every penny on it, but no bookie familiar with the theatre would take that bet.
Hartford Stage’s Anastasia is spectacular, stunning, staggering. Anastasia is engrossing, electrifying, engaging. Anastasia is fantastic, flawless and fabulous. But GREAT theatre like Anastasia, transcends mere alliterative adjectives that I am sure every other critic will be using. GREAT theatre like Anastasia has a palpable, undefinable force to it that touches your very soul. GREAT theatre like Anastasia makes you feel the spectrum of emotions; makes you laugh; makes you cry; makes the hair stand up on the nape of your neck; gives you goosebumps (and not because the theatre is cold); makes you reach out and touch the one you love who may just be sitting in that dark theatre next to you. I experienced all of the above and more.
While I knew the real story of the legend of Anastasia, upon which all of the subsequent fictional media projects are based, I am one of those rare culture vultures who never saw the 1997 animated version or the 1956 film version directed by Anatole Litvak and starring Ingrid Bergman, Yul Brynner, and Helen Hayes. Nor did I have to, for the new musical live-action play combines the best ingredients of the past versions into a totally new, sui generis version.
The play recounts the story of a poor, orphaned, amnesiac Russian girl known as Anya, who became one of the most famous claimants to the Romanov dynasty’s inheritance. The Royal Family of Russia was executed by communist revolutionaries in 1918. Rumors persisted, however, that the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna escaped the execution and was alive and living somewhere in the now communist Russia. Anastasia was the favorite of her grandmother Nana aka The Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna. The Dowager was living in Paris, but the last time she had seen Anastasia she had given her a music box and promised that someday they would be together in Paris. The Dowager, believing that her granddaughter may be alive, offered a 10 million dollar reward to find her. A con man, Vlad Popov, and his loyal minion, Dimitry, cook up a scheme to find a ringer for the Dowager’s granddaughter in order to get the reward. They stumble across Anya and convince her that she may indeed be Anastasia. They decide to go to Paris to convince the Dowager. They are tracked by Gleb who is given the task of either taking Anya back to Russia or killing her to end, for once and for all, the rumors that Anastasia is alive. To complicate things further, as it appears more and more likely that Anya is Anastasia, she falls in love with Dimitry along the way. It is a love, however, which can never be if, in fact, Anya is the real Anastasia. Is Anya the real Anastasia? Will she be able to convince the Dowager and the world? Will Gleb carry out his mission to abduct and possibly murder her? Will she give up her love for Dimitry? For some of you who are not familiar at all with the story of Anastasia, I will not spoil these crucial plot points. You will have to see it – and you will thank me afterwards for forcing you to do so.
One of the most significant American playwrights of our time, Terrence McNally, wrote an incredible book for Anastasia. In an interview with Pillow Talking he told us that Anastasia was a Broadway scale production. He was somewhat off the mark. Sorry, Terrence, but it is bigger than a Broadway scale production. It is an epic production that will haunt its audience (in a good way) for years to come. I can still conjure frozen tableau images of epic productions that I have seen in my lifetime; Richard Burton in both Camelot and Equus (when he stepped in for Anthony Perkins); Liza Minelli in The Act; Richard Dreyfus in Julius Caesar; Frank Langella in Seascape, and several others. I will now have to add Anastasia to that list.
Darko Tresnjak is both a visionary and master craftsman when it comes to directing theatre. He has integrated the best components from the film versions, theatrical conventions, and technology to create this tour de force. (Read Pillow Talking’s Interview with Darko Tresnjak.)
Let’s begin with casting. Darko, an admitted singing snob as a result of his working with some of the finest singers in the world, has put together an incredible cast of singers, actors and dancers. Christy Altomare, making her Hartford debut, is wonderful as Anya. She sings like an angel (cliché though that may be, there is no better way to describe her voice). Heart throb Derek Klena is the perfect choice for Dimitry. He brings to the role strength, but a certain boyish charm and naivete that has you rooting for him throughout the play. And talk about great chemistry between Derek and Christy – remember what used to happen when you mixed baking soda and vinegar in a cup on your Mom’s clean tablecloth? ‘Nuff Said. John Bolton who has performed as a soloist at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, not only brought his great singing chops to the role, but his acting and comic flair were spot on. Speaking of comic flair, Caroline O’Connor was hilarious as Countess Lily Malevsky-Malevitch (not to mention that her singing and dancing were flawless). Manoel Felciano hit the perfect tone as the determined and conflicted pursuer Gleb. I loved his renditions of “A Simple Thing” and “Anya.” Finally, Mary Beth Peil who has done everything from Broadway to TV and has more awards than the Dowager has diamonds, showed the spectrum of her acting range from commanding presence to sentimental vulnerability (not to mention that she also sings like an angel). In an interview with Pillow Talking, Darko discussed how each character had their own special moment; that it was a true collaborative cast. He was completely accurate.
I usually try to mention the entire cast, even the ensemble when the show is really good. Unfortunately, that is not possible here. Suffice it to say that the rest of the cast and ensemble work together like a finely tuned instrument in order to bring this show to the level where it is. Props to the entire cast. (I don’t envy the Producers trying to thank everyone in short sound bytes when Anastasia is up for awards.)
Music and Lyrics, courtesy of the fantastically creative team of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens (our modern day musical duo which harkens back to the days of Rogers and Hammerstein) were deftly-produced, nuanced with just the right tone and level for the action occurring on stage. My personal favorites included “Anya,” “In My Dreams,” “Everything to Win” and “Journey to the Past.”
I have two left feet, but even I took note of the mash up of various dance styles made possible by the brilliant choreography of Peggy Hickey. And there’s a sublime ballet sequence that will have you on your feet.
The multi-media aspects of the show, including the lighting, sound and video overlays were just as much a part of the overall success of the show as the casting, acting and directing. So kudos to Alexander Dodge (Scenic Design), Peter Hylenski (Sound Design), Donald Holder (Lighting Design), and Aaron Rhyne (Video & Projection Design). Finally, the costumes were stunning. Shout-outs to Costume Designer Linda Cho and Wig and Hair Designer Charles G. LaPointe.
There was something in Anastasia for everyone and whether or not it was deliberate or inadvertent, there were countless homages to other pieces of great theatre. For example, Anya’s education was reminiscent of Liza Doolittle’s in My Fair Lady; Gleb’s undeterred pursuit akin to Javier’s in Les Miserables; the ballet sequence like the play within the play in Phantom of the Opera; and others too numerous to cite.
Does it matter if the real Anya was Anastasia? As Darko says in his notes, no. The substance of myths, legends and fairy tales may take their cues from real life, but ultimately exist on a higher plane; in the ether of the vibrations of the universe and humanity’s collective consciousness. What does all that mean? You must experience Hartford Stage’s Anastasia.
P.S. We were sitting next to Tinkerbelle the Dog (we kid you not) and she appeared to love Anastasia as well. She has more credits to her name than a lot of actors. We were so glad she didn’t have better seats than we did, although, she did get to go backstage and meet the cast! Hmmm, rank has its privileges! It’s a dog’s life!