“Anastasia,” (“The New Broadway Musical” in this case) is a fictional reimagining of the fate of the youngest daughter of the last Czar of Russia. Bolsheviks executed the real Anastasia, along with her family, at the age of seventeen. The reason that such grim history has instigated so many “alternative facts” — especially in the glittering iteration now singing and dancing at the Broadhurst Theatre — lies in the persistent notion, however improbable, that Anastasia might have survived. Imposters emerged over successive decades to claim her identity, and these events have been dramatized in a play, an iconic 1956 film which brought a scandal-plagued Ingrid Bergman back to the big screen, and an animated feature, also called “Anastasia,” which has developed a devoted following in the twenty years since its release.
Composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens collaborated on that score and have retained half a dozen of their original songs, presumably so as not to traumatize fans of the cartoon version. But the producers of the current Broadway offering take considerable pains to reinforce the notion that the production is a New Musical. (Not my caps.) Certainly there are many added songs of the lushly orchestrated anthem variety. And an altered plotline introduces certain new elements including a Bolshevik leading man who completes a love triangle, and enriched historical background. But despite these efforts and the eminence of bookwriter Terrence McNally, the integration of style, form and content is forced and contrived. Sumptuous production values and a fine cast cannot, in the end, overcome the drawbacks of the production.
Briefly, the story finds a fetching amnesiac young woman named Anya (Christy Altomare) sweeping streets in St. Petersburg. Two opportunists, handsome Dmitry (Derek Klena, as Anya’s soul mate in love and deception, who makes the best of a bland role by displaying requisite sincerity and vocal assurance) and a faux Count, Vlad (John Bolton) are seeking an escape route out of dreary post-revolutionary Russia by recruiting and rehearsing a facsimile of the lost duchess to earn a substantial reward from the surviving matriarch, Dowager Empress Marie (Mary Beth Peil, singing and acting with impeccable skill and dignity). It has been established earlier that the Dowager, now in exile in Paris, shared a special bond with her granddaughter, Anastasia.
Plagued by nightmares and fragments of memories, Anya agrees to join Dmitry and Vlad’s game. Ready to play out their scam, and with the tantalizing possibility simmering that the schemers have stumbled across the real royal, the trio prepares to leave Russia. Anastasia has, however, attracted the attention of a Bolshevik security officer, Gleb (Ramin Karimloo) who attempts for reasons both personal and political to disrupt their departure. Failing, he eventually follows her to Paris under orders to assassinate the pretender.
In the French capital, we rather suddenly find ourselves frolicking about in an exceptionally glamorous Roaring Twenties. (It was a little tricky to track the passage of time despite the occasional projected date.) Anya has cleaned up really well and we meet the long lost flame of Count Vlad, Lily (Caroline O’Connor) who is Lady-in-Waiting to the Dowager Empress. The rekindling of that flame provides some welcome comic levity — more on that in a moment. Can you guess how the plot resolves? Not like real life, that’s for sure. Spoiler alert: Anastasia is acknowledged by her Grandmother, and true love triumphs.
The production has been put together by a group of folks who really know what they’re doing and, judging from the sentimentally appreciative responses around me, it will reliably delight its intended audience. It has been some time since I have heard nearly an entire audience greet an onstage kiss with audible approbation. But, in spite of the protestations of originality, or perhaps in part because of them, the show nevertheless feels like a pastiche still in search of itself. It is, in fact, all over the place — and what a lot of places there are to be all over! Here I am speaking not only of geography but also of influences.
From the musical theater idiom, we have a version of “My Fair Lady”’s “Rain In Spain” (here called “Learn To Do It”); an “American In Paris” homage with a dance set under the Eiffel Tower (“Paris Holds The Key To Your Heart”); “A Little Night Music” is invoked by “Quartet at the Ballet”; and there is even a nod to the Paris of “Gigi,” now through the lens of Vlad and his lady-love in “The Countess and the Common Man.” (O’Connor as Lily is simply terrific with traces of Merman, and a fine sense of comic timing. Watching her being seduced and seducing her equally diverting Count in a fine performance from Bolton was sheer pleasure.)
Moving on to unabashed romantic melodrama, we find a fair helping of histrionic dialogue creeping in. An example from among my dubious favorites: “History demands we play this game to the end.” Or: “I want to be a historian of the heart.” Aiming for contemporary resonance, the writers also salute immigrants saying goodbye to their homeland with “Stay, I Pray You.”
“Anastasia” does not have the literary pedigree of an authentic fairy tale with the moral universe and set of implicitly understood conventions such works embody. In telling the story from Anastasia’s perspective, the creators have little option but to simplify the complexities of history into something profoundly reductive. The treatment of the material occasionally attempts verisimilitude — characters musing on the failures of the revolution, for instance — but shortly thereafter we ricochet back into cartoon fantasyland.
To wit, the three conspirators arrive in Paris with Red Russians in hot pursuit, but Anya’s protectors leave their “golden goose” alone and unguarded on a bridge to sing a heartfelt number about something or other. (No motivation is offered other than a desire to “nip back to the hotel!”)
And again, in the lead up to the final confrontation with the lovestruck Bolshevik hitman, it apparently hasn’t occurred to anyone to lock the doors of our heroine’s sumptuous apartment. Karimloo, he of gorgeous voice and manly conviction, plays the would-be assassin, Gleb, with a whiff of Omar Sharif magnetism. (Can’t we just put him in some other musical with a heroine who appreciates him?)
The title character is portrayed as a plucky feminist adept at martial arts who can walk leagues through the Russian winter with no apparent source of sustenance. The fact that Anya/Anastasia ends up financing the entire escapade with her hoarded loot begs the question: why didn’t she just cash in her diamond and go to Paris on her own if she’s so feisty? Later we are told our heroine takes the time to pack a bag and clear out of her room intent on abandoning her shallow newfound good fortune. But she apparently does not linger to change out of a blinding diamond tiara and a red ball gown so extravagant that Scarlett O’Hara’s famous version would run a poor second. Thus attired she is all set to run inconspicuously through the streets of Paris. All this is just for the contrast with Dmitry’s proletarian britches, I guess, as they head off into their future.
Just how much disbelief can we ask the audience to suspend, and to what end?
Altomare must somehow carry all of this on her toned shoulders, and fortunately for us the production has chosen its leading lady well. She sings beautifully, acts with sensitivity, dances with grace, and even manages not to bore us with her perfection. She also shows off every opulent costume with the requisite elegance.
It could be observed in terms of the physical production that nothing succeeds like excess. The drop dead gorgeous costumes are by Linda Cho. It is a good thing that the Russian court ensemble featured in the opening of the musical are brought back multiple times in ghostly re-enactments because we needed more than one look at them. This excellent ensemble variously deployed as members of the Ballet Russe, White Russian society and revolutionary thugs execute choreography by Peggy Hickey that is always mood and period appropriate. Alexander Dodge’s set creates a multi-purpose gracious framing for extensive projections by Aaron Rhyne. But here once again neither a subtle nor consistent aesthetic applies. Some of the visuals are alluringly abstract while others are hyper realistic. Acres of saturated red backdrop places us in the revolution, in case we had any doubt. Snow falls and stars twinkle and flowers bloom in the eventual spring so copiously it is as though we have detoured to Oz. In aural complement, it often feels as though the show is scored like a film, such as when a chorus helpfully underpins a tense moment with a drawn gun.
Direction is by the Tony Award-winning Darko Tresnjak and it is surprising that some of these effects weren’t taken down a notch or ten, or that more attention wasn’t paid to establishing a coherent narrative and style for the piece. Tresnjak is a director whose body of work deserves admiration, but he hasn’t managed to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts of this musical. However, I predict most of the audience who buys a ticket for the ride will not be bothered at all. █