"Anastasia" at Hartford Stage

By Tom Nissley

There’s an amazing new production at Hartford Stage -- a staged musical based on the movie, “Anastasia,” redoing some of the semi-inspiring music from the movie, and adding everything you ever wanted to imagine about a young amnesiac (having lost her memory) girl who surfaced in St. Petersburg after the Revolution while the rumors kept flying that the Czar’s daughter, Anastasia, had survived the slaughter of her family.

The musical is not great theatre. It is possible to nitpick with the book by Terrence McNally, which allows the fantasy that Anya really is the Princess Anastasia to sneak through with a music box and how it opens and what it plays, and a diamond sewn into the hem of her dress. But forget that. Take the story as it’s presented and ignore some of the nutty romance on the stage and realize that this production is on the way to Broadway and/or a national tour and that everyone who sees it cheers and adores it and you can do that too, if tickets are still available.

So let’s focus on what’s fabulous about it. First of all are the amazing sets by Alexander Dodge and Colin McGurk, incorporating video and projection design by Aaron Rhyne, with Bart Cortright and Nick Graci. With their help you will travel from the Imperial Palace’s private suites right to the ball room and then to the streets where there is a revolution, on to the (Peoples’ Government) Central Office, and along the canals of St. Petersburg. Later there’s the most exciting train ride you’ve ever seen on stage and treks through the mountains and forest until we arrive in Paris, complete with cafes and the Seine and the Alexander Bridge that waits for crossing into a new life. Rooms change into streets and courtyards and back again. These are sets and grand projections to admire. Lighting by Donald Holder and Sound Design by Peter Hilenski complete the effects that keep us wide eyed, as well as the twelve-person orchestra skillfully directed by Thomas Murray.

Then there are the costumes by Linda Cho, with Ricky Lurie and Brynn Almli, that create magical personages from the Court to the common folk in St. Petersburg and Paris, including the dancers of the Ballet Russe and all the Avant-garde artists who made Paris wonderful between the great wars. This scenery and these costumes will be replicated wherever Anastasia is performed, along with the music by Stephen Flaherty and the lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, and actors and dancers will flesh them out, and audiences will keep cheering.

After all that, let’s get to the people on stage, the superb choreography by a team led by Peggy Hickey and the overall direction by Darko Tresnjak of this large cast of actors and dancers. All that’s needed to complete the picture is a fleet of busses and trucks to catch the company when the run is over and move them to the next venue (in Manhattan?). For this is a production headed for even more approbation and applause than the cheering throngs in Hartford can provide.

The leading talent in Hartford’s “Anastasia” includes Mary Beth Peil, as the Dowager Empress Maria Federova. It is she who, at the top of the show, gives the little music box to her granddaughter, six-year-old Anastasia, and they sing together the song that the little box plays, “Once Upon a December,” while “Nana” promises the child that she will always love her. Just like that a decade passes and a seventeen-year-old Anastasia is with her beautiful parents (Lauren Blackman and Constantine Germanacos) at a ball in the Palace when windows break and the Revolution begins. Before she leaves the room the girl runs to retrieve the music box, and disappears as lights go down.

Soon other important voices will make their claim for attention. Gleb (Manoel Felciano), Dmitry (Derek Klena), Vlad Popov (the presence-filled John Bolton), and Anya (Christy Altomare). These four will dominate the story line. Anya has amnesia and forgets her past. Gleb is attracted to her but also warns her not to be deceived by rumors that any of the Romanovs survived. Meanwhile Vlad and Dmitry find her and begin to train her (a la Pygmalion) to think and speak like a princess and memorize the details of the Romanov family. They want to take her to Paris, where the Dowager, now an ancient woman in exile, still searches for the possibility that Anastasia lives.

Vlad and Dmitry and Anya do make it to Paris where Vlad has an in to the Empress through Countess Lily Malevsky-Malevitch (the phenomenal Caroline O’Connor), with whom he had a continuing love affair in Russia, and who is the secretary to the Empress. They have a sizzling reunion in a White Russian Night Club where Lily is well known, and then she agrees to introduce Anya, (or Anastasia?), to the Empress. Now two things happen. The Empress resists and rejects Anya. Dmitry in a fit of passion tells her majesty that she has made an awful mistake. The Empress changes her mind and visits the young woman, who produces the music box that she alone knows how to open and the two sing “Once Upon a December,” Nana’s song from long ago. But (yes, but!) Anya, by now, has fallen in love with Dmitry, and he with her. Just as it seems they will never see each other again, the Empress advises ‘Anastasia’ to follow her heart, and the musical ends with mystery and happiness all around.

It would be a mistake not to credit the majestic dancing of Alida Michal, Max Clayton, and Dance Captain Johnny Stellard, along with the group of cygnets, who danced in the Swan Lake segment, and added so much grandeur to the production.

So if you can, if you possibly can, get tickets and enjoy “Anastasia.” Information and tickets at www.hartfordstage.org or 860-527-5151. The show runs through June 19.

 Tom Nissley for the Ridgelea Reports on Theatre.

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