‘Anastasia’ is a huge Broadway-bound hit at Hartford Stage in Connecticut

 By Tony Schillaci and Don Church

Tony Award-winner Darko Tresnjak has once again proven that he has the gift when it comes to directing wonderful musicals on their path to the Great White Way. With A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder winning the 2014 Best Musical and Best Director accolades, and still playing in New York as well as on National Tour, Mr. Tresnjak has now mounted a magical and uplifting musical, Anastasia, on the Hartford Stage in Connecticut. Inspired by the mystery surrounding the life of Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanov, this show is the hottest ticket New England, and will conclude its world premiere and pre-Broadway try-out on June 19.

With a voice as crystal-clear as the chandeliers in the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, Christy Altomare plays Anya/Anastasia with a heart-melting sweetness combined with the womanly strength and bravery that a powerful Grand Duchess would be trained to possess. Her incredible first act closing song “Journey to the Past” brings cheers from the audience. As Dmitry, Anya’s handsome manipulator and would-be suitor, Derek Klena bursts upon the stage in a delicious ensemble number “A Rumor in St. Petersburg.” Mr. Klena and Ms. Altomare’s captivating stage presence and well honed vocal and acting chops define the phrase ‘Broadway Stars.’ Their chemistry is perfection, and they are entrancing in their singing, dancing and romancing.

In a low-key but utterly captivating opening scene, Mary Beth Peil as the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, and Nicole Scimeca as Anastasia age 6, effectively set the stage for the story with the theme “Once Upon a December” -- a lovely melody that reprises several times throughout the show. Stephen Flaherty’s gorgeous music and Lynn Ahren’s wise and witty story-telling lyrics drive the tale of Anastasia through revolution and violence, from the Russian Revolution to 1920’s Paris. Every song punctuates the human emotions of love, hate, fear, happiness and depression without preaching. Ms. Peil returns in the second act with a powerful number “Close the Door” to which she brings into play all her experience and power as a great actress and singer.

The villain in this piece, Gleb, is played by Manoel Felciano who brings to the character the kind of charm that allows you to hate his politics while still ‘almost’ liking him. His message in the ensemble song "A Simple Thing" is chilling, but he delivers the vocal expression beautifully. John Bolton plays Vlad Popov with comic genius and delivers his songs with a voice that achieves every nuance of the lyric. Bolton is lovable as Vlad and has been given some of the funniest lines in the first-rate book by the legendary playwright Terrence McNally. Playing as Vlad’s lady love is the magnificent comedienne/singer/dancer Caroline O'Connor as Lily -- a Countess living in near poverty in Paris. Lily enjoys the Neva Club nightlife where the deposed aristocrats of Russia go to forget the “Land of Yesterday.” Someone in the audience whispered “Merman lives” and that’s an apt description of Ms. O’Connor’s brassy and memorable performance.

The entire ensemble delivers every word of each melodic song with perfection and dances every step of Peggy Hickey’s exquisite choreography with precision. All of the talented actor/singer/dancers play multiple roles, and big extra cheers go to Alida Michal, Max Clayton and Johnny Stellard in the stunning ‘Swan Lake’ sequence, and to Rayanne Gonzales as a very witty Gertrude Stein.

The scenic design by Alexander Dodge, in partnership with the lighting design of Donald Holder and the Video and Projection Design of Aaron Rhyne brings to Anastasia some of the most gorgeous scenery and special effects seen on the theatrical stage to date. Mr. Tresnjak’s bold incorporation of all technologies available into this production makes for a thrilling visual theatrical experience.

Linda Cho has designed ‘drop-dead gorgeous’ costumes to clothe the Imperial Russian Family and the court of the Czar, and her design for the gown of the Czarina should be preserved in a museum for all the world to see. From the uniforms of the Red soldiers to the sad rags of the Russian peasants to the Haute Couture of the Parisian boulevardiers, her clothes are perfection. Charles G. Lapointe has done the wigs and hair with such skill and authenticity that each character looks exactly right for the time line.

And oh, the music! Composer Stephen Flaherty also acts as vocal arranger in this show, and with orchestrator Doug Besterman and music director Thomas Murray, the ensemble and musicians create some of the most exciting melodic and stirring music to be heard in the theater in a very long time. The delivery of sheer joy in every song and word is the result of Peter Hylenski’s sound design -another cheer to precise technology.

At intermission, these reviewers were delighted to note that so many young people, late teens to early twenties, were in the theater. Two young women in front of us turned around and said “We loved this story since we were little girls and saw the animated film. When we saw it advertised that there would be a live theater production in Hartford, we ordered student tickets and drove down from New Hampshire today especially for this performance. We’re so lucky to be seeing it before Broadway! We LOVE it!” (Producers take notice on how to bring in a new generation of theater lovers.)

Darko Tresnjak said "It has been a privilege to work with Lynn, Stephen, and Terrence over the past two years on Anastasia. I am thrilled that such a splendid company of actors and designers will join us in bringing to life this eagerly awaited world premiere."

For tickets and information to Anastasia and about all the upcoming shows at Hartford Stage, go to www.hartfordstage.org or call the box office at 860 527-5151. (This exceptionally well-designed theater has unobstructed sight lines from every seat.)

Hartford Stage is located at 50 Church Street, next to an indoor parking garage (for which you can buy discounted vouchers on the HS website) in downtown Hartford Connecticut.

Published online on Examiner.com June 13, 2016 and on many additional media online publications

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