By David A. Rosenberg
Take the word “extraordinary” and chop off the first five letters to get an idea of what happens in Anastasia, the Broadway-bound new musical at Hartford Stage. Turning an explosive, familiar historical event like the possible survival of one of Russia’s assassinated royal Romanovs into an insipid love story, the show’s fate is questionable. As fashioned by the expert hands of Terrence McNally (book), Stephen Flaherty (music), Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) and director Darko Tresnjak, the current production is beautiful on the eyes and pleasant to the ears, while bypassing heart and mind.
Spanning the years 1907-1927, Anastasia takes us from the beginning of the Russian Revolution to the stranglehold the communists had on the once imperial land. We first see the doomed Anastasia as a six-year-old, doted upon by her grandmother, the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna.
Years later, a young street cleaner, Anya, is enticed by two con men, Vlad Popov and Dmitry, into pretending to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia who perhaps survived the assassination. When the Bolshevik government discovers that the spirited girl off the streets is being prepped to be an anti-revolutionary royal, the conspiring trio must skedaddle from St. Petersburg to Paris where the empress now lives. There’s a telling, touching moment at the train station when a Russian aristocrat seems to recognize Anastasia as the true princess and bows before her. The train journey itself, excitingly told through startlingly realistic projections, may give viewers motion sickness.
Act Two opens with a Times Square-like hustle and bustle, complete with conventional dancing around and on a large replica of the Eiffel Tower plunked incongruously in the middle of a Parisian street. Contrasting dour Russians vs. jolly French, in some respects the show is also a battle of expediency vs. luxury, 99-percenters vs. one-percenters. But little of the plight of impoverished exiles is developed.
In France, the con men hope their deception will convince and bilk money from the empress who’s been besieged by fake Anastasias. It’s a mark of the musical’s problems that the great recognition meeting of empress and Anya not only comes late but is given short shrift. Hanging over the show is the one-time possibility that Anastasia survived has since been disproved.
Much more compelling than the romance between Dmitry and Anya is the love-from-afar connection between her and Gleb, a Russian officer whose father was one of the Romanov executioners. Gleb is hellbent on completing the massacre: aristocracy has no place in the communist government. In fact, the evening’s most suspenseful scene is its penultimate one between Gleb and Anya.
Not much is done with that threat, however. Instead of digging down into the connection between personal and political, McNally’s libretto sinks into more trite aspects on its way to a happy, fairytale ending. It’s hard to care about a heroine who’s so simplistic. Anya’s not knowing who she is, what kind of life she chooses, where she belongs, is much more fascinating than whom she should marry and surely leads to larger themes.
Too much has been Americanized, musical comedy-ized by creators who have played it safe. Except for the brilliant design and some of the performances, the evening is puny, although the Hartford audience’s gleeful, nigh-hysterical greeting of every song invariably led to an obligatory ovation at the curtain call.
Christy Altomare is both feisty and regal as Anya. Her Act One closer, “Journey to the Past,” is stunning, her scene with the empress almost touching, thanks as much to Mary Beth Peil’s incisive portrayal of the hot and cold royal. John Bolton as Vlad has a show-stopping number with lively comic foil Caroline O’Connor as Lily, the dowager’s aide, while Alida Michal shines as Odettte in a Swan Lake sequence.
As one of Anya’s two suitors, Derek Klena is charisma-challenged as Dmitry, fading into the considerable scenery. But Manoel Felciano is superb as Gleb, indicating what could -- and perhaps should -- be as vital as the is-she-Anastasia plot. He brings electricity and sensuousness to an evening in sore need of both.
Those qualities are assigned to the physical production, which is a knockout. Alexander Dodge’s scenic design, Donald Holder’s lights, Linda Cho’s costumes, Peter Hylenski’s sound and, especially, Aaron Rhyne’s fantastic video and projection design do much to boost the evening. Ghostly figures vie with splendid vistas of Paris and St. Petersburg in a production of seductive opulence.
Peggy Hickey’s choreography is suitable, while Darko Tresnjak’s direction focuses on the presentational with lots of facing straight to the audience. (Tresnjak won a Tony for A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, which also began at Hartford Stage.) The Anastasia score is filled with gems: in addition to “Journey,” there are “Once Upon a December,” “Land of Yesterday,” the comic “The Countess and the Common Man” and the poignant “In My Dreams” (“You don’t know what it’s like / Not to know who you are”), among others.
This is not the first attempt to musicalize the story. In 1985, a version titled Anya flopped on Broadway. An animated film, on which the current show is partly based, hit the screens in 1997. Both used the original play by Marcelle Maurette and director Anatole Litvak’s highly praised 1956 film with Ingrid Bergman (who won an Oscar), Helen Hayes and Yul Brynner.
So the idea persists. If all goes well, this Anastasia might make it, though it has a long, long way to go. Still, the very name Anastasia means “resurrection,” so who knows?