Released in 1997, Anastasia was a dazzling 94-minute animated movie musical. Twenty years later, it’s a fidget-inducing, two-and-a-half-hour Broadway musical, with a production not nearly animated enough to warrant that running time.
Largely set in Saint Petersburg and spanning 1907-1927, the musical starts with a dream-like prologue in which a young Anastasia bids farewell to her grandmother, the Dowager Empress (Mary Beth Peil, Les Liaisons Dangereuses), who’s leaving for Paris. That is the last time the Empress will see her family (well, almost…), as 10 years later, all of the Romanovs are tragically killed by the Bolsheviks in an invasion. All of the Romanovs, the rumor goes, except for the Princess Anastasia.
Christy Altomare (Mamma Mia!) stars as Anya, who, flash forward to 1927, is a dust-covered street sweeper with a shaky past. She has no family or sense of identity. After she emerged from a coma, she didn’t even know her name, so when people started calling her Anya, she leaned right in. Act One follows Anya as she falls into some troubles. First, there’s Gleb (Ramin Karimloo), a Bolshevik general who’s suspicious of Anya — his father is responsible for killing the Romanovs. If you couldn’t tell by his five o’clock shadow and slick black hair, he’s the villain here. (Movie fans take note: Rasputin and his albino bat Bartok don’t appear in this production.)
Karimloo, a Tony nominee for his performance as Valjean in Les Miserables, has little to work with apart from some ballads that occasionally put his full range on display. Because the character is underdeveloped, he’s not convincing as sinister, nor as lovesick. (There are hints at Gleb having feelings for Anya, though the suggestion is too subtle to fully register.) Then there are Dmitry (Derek Klena, The Bridges of Madison County) and Vlad (John Bolton, Dames At Sea), two con artists hoping to find a young woman who they can mold into an Anastasia stand-in that the Empress will actually believe is her granddaughter, thereby earning them a ton of cash. Throughout Anya’s training with Dmitry and Vlad — including the peppy number “Learn to Do It” — she starts to remember bits and pieces of her past life, and the duo ultimately comes to believe that this is no con: Anya really is the Princess.
Peil and her gregarious lady-in-waiting, Countess Lily (Caroline O’Connor, Chicago), prove to be the most dynamic performers of the bunch. Altomare and Klena fall flat, lacking the charisma needed to fill the slog. Most of O’Connor’s scenes feel like filler, but she and Klena, whose characters share a previous love affair, add a nice jolt of energy to the show’s relatively one-note tone.
Act Two, set in Paris, centers on the reunion between Anya and the Empress, as the Empress slowly comes to realize that Anya is, in fact, who she claims to be. The tweeds and drab wools of Act One are swapped for candy colored silks and Swarovski crystals. Costume designer Linda Cho and set designer Alexander Dodge (both of A Gentlemen’s Guide to Love & Murder) put their respective Tony-winning and Tony-nominated hands to great use — the costumes (and tiaras, in particular) and screen-based sets that transport the audience from Saint Petersburg to a speeding train to a cherry-blossom-filled park are the true standouts of this show.
Fans of the Twentieth Century Fox film will find some joy in the score, which includes film favorites like “Journey to the Past” and “A Rumor in St. Petersburg.” Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, who nabbed Oscar noms for the soundtrack and are Tony winners themselves, wrote an abundance of new tracks for the adaptation. The mix feels cohesive, though nothing trumps their original “Journey to the Past” (and the powerful — and eventual radio hit — “At the Beginning” is left out entirely). Anastasia is Flaherty and Ahrens’ third time collaborating with bookwriter Terrence McNally (Ragtime). Director Darko Tresnjak, who won the Tony for A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder, caters to his young audience with a healthy — perhaps too healthy — dose of superfluous ensemble sequences, including one too many dream scenes and a tipsy dance number at the Neva club.
A few thoughts ran through my disappointed mind as I chewed on my $8 peanut M&M’s. Am I too close to the subject matter? It’s certainly possible — Anastasia was one of my absolute favorite movies as a kid and the soundtrack caused a Rent-level obsession for me. Or, 20 years later, am I frankly too old to buy into this kind of hokey Princess stuff? Despite my momentary existential crisis, I remembered the goosebumps I experienced only recently during magical productions of Aladdin and Cinderella, which were as Disney Princess-esque as it comes.
Compounding matters, my feelings about this Anastasia adaptation (which also draws inspiration from the Ingrid Bergman-starring 1956 production, in addition to the 1997 animated film) didn’t seem to be shared with the crowd: The theater was filled with what appeared to be at least two full classes of elementary school students who audibly “oohed” during a kissing scene, and I even spotted a young woman crying.
Postcards asking audience members to write down what they’ll do on their journey were handed out with the hashtag #onmyjourney, but before I could even think about it, I was pretty deflated and #onmyjourney out. B-