An Eye-Filling "Anastasia"

By Geary Danihy

These days, just about any show that’s boarded gets some form of standing ovation, but on a recent Sunday when I saw Anastasia up at Hartford Stage, it was the first time I can remember that the audience was on its feet before the curtain went up for the curtain call. Was the unbridled enthusiasm justified? Well, yes. Anastasia is a big, crowd-pleasing, old-fashioned musical that doesn’t mind wearing its heart on its sleeve. Blessed with a superb cast that Darko Tresnjak has directed with style and aplomb, Anastasia, which is most likely headed for Broadway, will make you smile and, perhaps, draw just a tear or two from your eyes.

Scenic and projection designers, as well as choreographers, are mostly mentioned at the end of reviews, often with nothing more than an obligatory nod, but in the case of this production, these folks deserve star billing. Let’s start with Alexander Dodge, who is responsible for the lavish scenic design. Over the course of the evening he will have you in St. Petersburg (in both the Tsar’s palace and on the streets where revolution is brewing), take you for a ride on a train heading for Paris, entrance you with a walk down a boulevard in the City of Lights, invite you to a cafe that caters to Russian expatriates and even bring you to a performance of Swan Lake, and these scenic transitions are absolutely flawless. There’s not a moment wasted.

These scene establishments and changes are enhanced by some of the best projections I have seen, all designed by Aaron Rhyne. His work gives a cinematic feel to many of the scenes without ever falling into the trap of trying to force the production to try to accomplish what can be done on the screen. Of special note is his work for the train-ride sequence -- the train car itself is on a revolving platform and as it turns, the perspective of the countryside rushing by also changes. Then there’s the French forest that dissolves into a stunning view of the Paris skyline (in cinematic terms, think of a crane shot), and...well, the list could go on and on, but you get the idea. His fine work is accented by Donald Holder’s lighting design, which explodes when appropriate to convey upheaval but then softens to draw the audience into the more intimate scenes.

Finally, there’s Peggy Hickey’s choreography, which embraces multiple styles. You’ll see Russian folk dances, regal ballroom dancing, Jazz Age Charlestons and even classic ballet. It’s inventive, smart choreography that’s totally in sync with the story being told and the years the production spans (1907 -- 1927)...and, she certainly knows how to build a show-stopping number. Plus, watch for the deft “switch” early in the first act as the scene changes from 1907 to 1917 – it’s still the tsar and the nobility dancing the night away, but little Anastasia (Nicole Seimeca) becomes a teenage Anastasia (Molly Rushing) -- ten years covered in a single moment! I’m sure there are more formal terms to describe the transition, but the most appropriate one I can come up with is “Way cool!”

Okay, so what about the cast? Well, you couldn’t ask for a finer collection of actors and dancers, starting with the superb and totally beguiling Christy Altomare, who plays Anya, a young woman suffering from amnesia who may just be the Princess Anastasia. When she is on stage she simply owns it, which brings us to perhaps the only flaw in the book by Terrence McNally, because for a long stretch of the second act (it probably seemed longer than it was), Anya (read Altomore) is not on stage. By now, the audience has grown to care for Anya, thanks to Altomore’s fine work, and her absence is something of an emotional letdown, especially after her first-act closing number, “Journey to the Past,” which brought down the house.

Standout performances abound. Derek Klena, as Dmitry, Anya’s love interest, gives a heartfelt performance as a commoner trying to find a way to make money off of the rumor that Princess Anastasia survived the horrific slaughter of the Romanov family in Yekaterinburg. Their characters’ love finally blossoms in the second act’s “In a Crowd of Thousands.” Abetting Dmitry is John Bolton as Vlad Popov, also a commoner with pretensions of nobility. Then there’s the marvelous Mary Beth Peil as the Dowager Empress. Regal, yet riven by sorrow over the loss of her family and besieged by young women claiming to be Anastasia, Peil gives a powerful yet touching performance that culminates in a moving scene late in act two when she interviews Anya.

Supporting these lead efforts is Manoel Felciano as Gleb, an apparatchik whose father was a guard at Yekaterinburg and is now charged with killing the presumptive princess, the tart Caroline O’Connor, who plays a countess who has become the dowager empress’s secretary and yet likes to live for the moment, and the lithe and lovely Lauren Blackman who does double duty as the tsarina and Isadora Duncan.

As you watch Anastasia, with music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, you may occasionally have a mind itch: doesn’t what you’re seeing make you think of something else? Yes, it probably does, for there’s a bit of Fiddler on the Roof, My Fair Lady, Hello, Dolly! and even Thoroughly Modern Millie in this production, but most musicals feed off prior musicals, at least the successful ones. If you liked the scene in My Fair Lady when Eliza finally understands how to speak properly about the rain in Spain, then you’ll like the “Learn to Do It” number; if you liked “Thoroughly Modern Millie” then you’ll like “Paris Holds the Key”; if you liked Dolly’s “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” then you’ll like the “Traveling Sequence.”

With its period-perfect costumes by Linda Cho and an accomplished orchestra led by Thomas Murray, Anastasia pleases both the eye and the ear. It’s big, it’s lush, it’s vibrant and, judging by the comments overheard as the audience left the theater, it delivers.

Anastasia runs through June 19. For tickets or more information call 860-527-5151 or go to www.hartfordtsage.org.

 

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