– By Cate Marquis –
The visually dazzling Broadway musical ANASTASIA brings romantic historical fantasy to the Fox stage, Dec. 26 – Jan.6. The new musical is based on the classic story inspired by rumors that surfaced in 1917, shortly after the revolutionary Bolshevik government executed the Russian czar and his family, that the Czar’s youngest daughter Anastasia survived. The rumors that Anastasia somehow escaped were soon followed by a number of women claiming to be Anastasia.
Over the years, the mysterious, romantic tale of Anastasia has persisted and entered the realm of legend, despite the factual evidence that none of the Russian royal family survived. The legend has sparked several incarnations, including the 1997 animated Disney musical and the 1956 dramatic film starring Ingrid Berman and Yul Brynner, both based on a 1952 play inspired by Anna Anderson, one of the most famous of the Anastasia imposters.
This new hit Broadway musical draws on both films and the play. That means that if your memory of this story is drawn from either film, you may be in for some surprises. However, this lavish, gorgeous musical production leans more Disney, although the story is more grown-up. The book is by Terrence McNally and music by Stephen Flaherty with lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, draws on both films and, of course, the original play. Darko Tresnjak directs the touring Broadway production at the Fox.
The musical opens with a prelude of royal Romanov family life pre-Russian Revolution. The 8-year-old Grand Duchess Anastasia (Victoria Bingham) says good-bye to her grandmother, the Dowager Empress Maria (Joy Franz), who gives her a music box. There are also scenes of teen-aged Anastasia (Taylor Quick) dancing with her father, Czar Nicholas II (Michael McCorry Rose). These scenes re-occur as memories throughout the musical.
We then flash forward to after the Russian revolution, when the news that the Bolshevik government has executed the royal Romanov family fills newspapers, and rumors swirl that the youngest daughter Anastasia survived. The Dowager Empress, living in Paris, offers a reward for the return of her granddaughter. In Russia, a pair of con men, hoping to escape their country, think they have the perfect plan to claim the money. Young Dmitry (Stephen Brower) and Count Vlad (Edward Staudenmayer), an aristocrat impostor, plot to find an Anastasia look-alike and coach her to fool the Dowager Empress.
After several tries, they come upon a mysterious 18-year-old orphan with amnesia named Anya (Lila Coogan), who seems to have an uncanny affinity for Anastasia’s story. But their plan may be foiled by relentless Russian official Gleb (Jason Michael Evans) who is tasked with crushing rumors that Anastasia is still alive, which might threaten the communist government by encouraging counter-revolutionaries.
The real star of this big, gorgeous production is the staging. ANASTASIA uses a combination of huge ever-changing videos, moving screens and props to create a beautiful fantasy world on stage. Framing the video backdrop with sets that suggest a palace, a Russian official’s office, or street, the outstanding sets transport us to the Romanov palace, Petersburg or Paris. One of the best effects uses a large rotating train car, with framing props and video, to put us in a grand train station in Russia and them transport us to the train journey to Paris, with the scenery streaming by. Another eye-popping effect is used for scenes where Anya/Anastasia dreams about a grand ball at the palace, where dancers spin in front of a set suggesting large windows while shadowy, ghostly images dance on the wall behind and above them.
One of the most impressive scenes is not one that depends on video to create magic, one in which Anya and Count Vlad go to the Paris opera in hopes of meeting the Dowager Empress. While we see them watching the ballet from their boxes, ballet dancers perform actual excerpts from “Swan Lake” on the stage below, a wholly magical moment worth the price of admission alone.
The cast handle both the dramatics and singing well. The songs are tuneful but not particularly memorable. The fake Count Vlad, who has a romantic history with the Dowager Empress’ lady-in-waiting, Countess Lily (Tari Kelly) add an element of comic relief to the drama.
The fantasy story is charming but the fantastic production is even more charming, making the familiar tale appealing and worth a trip to the Fabulous Fox, itself the perfect frame for this luscious romantic dream.
© Cate Marquis