There are few pleasures greater in a theatre going life than encountering a glorious new musical about which you know nothing. So it is with Anastasia, a complete triumph on Broadway. The score is as lush and lavish as the spectacular sets and costumes and the cast has no weak spots. Utterly superb singing of utterly beautiful music, some of which is blissfully funny. The kind of theatre that will make youngsters love theatre for life.
Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, the composer/lyricist team behind the glorious Ragtime as well as a range of under-rated musicals including A Man Of No Importance, My Favourite Year and The Glorious Ones, are back on Broadway with what is likely to be their most commercially successful musical, Anastasia. While it shares some songs in common with the successful 1997 film, this Anastasia is a wholly new experience.
The book, by Terrence McNally, is a new and vital ingredient in the mix. Weaving historical truths with romantic fantasy, McNally creates vivid and interesting characters and spins them on a journey from St Petersburg to Paris which is full of genuine tension and surprise, and which has ghosts, villains, clowns, royalty and lovers all within its ambit, and all beating with the same true, emotional heart.
The legend upon which Anastasia is based is familiar from film and fiction. When the Czar and his family were assassinated in the Russian Revolution of 1918, was it possible that one daughter somehow escaped? And if she did, what happened to her? How did her grandmother cope with the thought of possibly finding her again? And what if a young girl with amnesia really was the lost Princess?
In quite a canny way, McNally, Ahrens and Flaherty produce an Anastasia that has an overall fairytale feel, albeit one that doesn’t result in a royal wedding. There are aspects of Cinderella, Fiddler On The Roof and My Fair Lady about certain scenes and, as a whole, one could be forgiven for assuming the score was written by Alan Menken. That is not to criticise any aspect of the writing; there is a real benefit in the familiar feel that the pastiche style provides, as well as an energy of its own.
While the music in the score makes a richly melodious whole, its constituent parts adding harmony or discord depending on which character is centre of attention, there is a lot of variety in the music too. Numbers like Learn To Do It, Paris Holds The Key, Land Of Yesterday and Quartet At The Ballet have very different sensibilities and styles, but they each chart important aspects of the historic tapestry upon which Anastasia depends. Every number feels like it belongs to the legend and each one adds lustre to it.
Lyrics are critical in any musical, of course, but they take true prominence when the musical is brand new. Here, the lyrics are crisp, smart and genuinely delightful. There are no jarring phrases or clumsy rhymes that shatter mood. Some of the phrases are delicately aching; this is particularly true of the Dowager Empress’ songs. The songs for Anastasia and Dmitry burst with radiant hope, their words tender and aspirational, while Countess Lily’s lyrics are peachy – ripe, juicy and delicious.
Happily, the diction of the entire company is superb. Every word is easily discerned, even through complicated harmonies and contrapuntal sections. The quality of the singing is outstanding; notes are thrillingly, carefully sung, every one a winner. The standard of singing here, principals and ensemble, is superb and better than can be found in most Broadway musicals at present. Full credit to musical director Tom Murray.
As well, and most importantly, none of the songs seem to be out of place or unnecessary. Each is a part of the jigsaw puzzle that is Anastasia’s life, past, present and future. As soon as you hear the opening number, Once Upon A December, you are set up for a tale of heart-breaking love, and numbers like Journey To The Past, In A Crowd Of Thousands and Everything To Win more than fulfill that promise. The changes in tempo and style add to and complement the confusion that surrounds Anya/Anastasia and her quest to find her true self.
Alexander Dodge’s remarkable set design plays into the past-present-future notion well. There are constant marble archways which can easily evoke palace, opera house or office space, as well as outside city square or formal garden. A central set of marble doors flies in when needed, and the entire space is a canvas for Aaron Rhyne’s ingenious projections, which, with uncanny expertise, summon up a real sense of places as distinct as St Petersburg’s most famous view, a busy railway station, the Paris Opera, or the blossoming countryside of France.
The projections provide colour and an exotic shimmer for the action. If you have been to St Petersburg or to the Pont Alexandre III in Paris, the quality of Rhyne’s work will reverberate – the locations feel real, and with Donald Holder’s romantic and sensitive lighting, enticingly evocative. Sumptuous and exquisite costumes from Linda Cho augment every scene, whether they be uniforms, Court gowns, Opera frocks or peasant attire. It all looks quite magical. And, from the shining little eyes all around me, irresistibly so.
Holder and Rhyne graphically suggest the blood-letting of the Russian Revolution with a striking use of blood red lighting and effects, and together they conjure up ethereal images of great beauty when there is reminiscing about the lost Romanov family of which Anastasia was a part.
The seamless changes of setting, location and mood work enormously in the favour of the production and keeps focus aligned: the locations may change quickly and often, but the sense of creating them remains constant and constantly surprising. It’s an extremely skilful and illuminating use of design to enhance understanding – as well as enjoyment.
Darko Tresnjak directs Anastasia with a keen eye for detail and relentless, enthusiastic precision. The sense of the tumult in Anya’s world is clear, as is the contrast between the Romanov Russia and the Republic of Lenin. Paris and Russia have completely different characters and the train station that links them is a melting pot of possibility, and the scene of a beautiful vignette about what was lost by some in the Revolution. Staging is never fussy, always clean and simple, with the focus on story telling.
Nor does Tresnjak shy away from set pieces: the scene where Anya, Dmitry and Vlad are almost captured on a moving train is genuinely exciting; Paris Holds The Key starts Act Two with a jocular bang and some Eiffel Tower flourish; Quartet at the Ballet boasts an effective ballet sequence as well as a dramatic turning point; The Press Conference is inevitable, but still surprising. Big or heartfelt ballads aside, the best number in the show is Land Of Yesterday, a good old-fashioned burst of joy led by the irrepressibly amusing Caroline O’Connor’s Princess Lily.
With finely judged choreography from Peggy Hickey as a solid support, Tresnjak makes every scene count. The pace never lags, and the twists and turns of the plot are given proper attention. Only too-cool-for-school adults will be confused or let down by the narrative; inquiring minds and those open to a new story will simply have a terrific time enjoying it.
Christy Altomare is sensational in the title role, and her performance is a true star-making turn. She is naturally radiant, exquisitely beautiful, and her warmth permeates everything she does. She handles difficult scenes with real skill and the confrontations between her and Mary Beth Peil’s steely Dowager Empress are superb, with both actors in top form.
She sings with a true, quite golden voice. Not afraid to sing softly, she also handles the big notes with ease. It is thrilling to hear her tackle In My Dreams, A Secret She Kept and, especially, Journey To The Past, her rendition of which is goosebump inducing. Heady, powerful and emotive singing.
Playing opposite Altomare is the absurdly attractive Derek Klena, who has a voice that is as polished and impressive as his matinee idol physique. His assured delivery of Everything To Win is very impressive. Although it would have been better if there were more tangible signs of his life as a street urchin, Klena is wholly believable as the smooth talking petty criminal with an eye for a quick fortune.
There is good chemistry between Klena and Altomare and, indeed, if there was any stronger chemistry on show, the plot would make little sense. It is never clear that they will end up a couple, so rightly neither play their parts as if they do. But the seeds of attraction are clear and moments of romantic possibility are judged finely as the story rolls on, culminating in the marvellous moment in In A Crowd Of Thousands when, suddenly, a memory stirs and hearts melt. They make a very romantic odd couple, exactly as they should: A possible Princess and a princely rogue.
The other key relationship both Altomare and Klena have is with John Bolton’s Vlad, who is (eventually) a kind of father figure to both. Bolton is a blander Vlad than might have been ideal, but he gives the part suitable gusto and never is less than fully committed. More eccentricity might have brought out the twinkle in Vlad’s eye, but Bolton shuffles proceedings along nicely. The unlikely trio they form is charming.
As with many musicals, Anastasia has a supporting romantic storyline, this one involving Vlad and Princess Lily, who is Lady In Waiting to the Dowager Empress. Vlad and Lily were lovers at a different time and he needs to persuade Lily to let Anastasia have access to the Dowager Empress, so that he and Dmitry might collect a reward should the Dowager Empress decide that Anya really is her granddaughter, Anastasia.
The relationship between Vlad and Lily, then, is a necessary part of the plot and time is rightly devoted to it in the second Act. Lily only appears briefly in Act One, but in that short moment O’Connor is heart-breaking as the bearer of bad news to the Dowager Empress. That short, significant moment sets up the close trust and friendship between the two characters. In Act Two, both Peil and O’Connor expand on their complex relationship to great effect.
Peil is astonishing in every scene, a figure of genuine aristocratic charm, imperial expectation, but also a devoted and doting Grandmother. It is a real treat to watch Peil deal with the trauma of her family all being slaughtered and see how her Dowager Empress regains her composure, only to lose it again as time, and trying imposters, eat away at her spirit.
She sings with clarity and great, wintry beauty; her rendition of Close The Door is truly affecting. A completely rounded, completely real performance awash with grace and sensitivity.
For her part, O’Connor makes the absolute most of the opportunities the comic relief mode for Lily provides. She is a knockout in Land Of Yesterday, singing and dancing with unbeatable panache, whimsical style. She makes Lily a totally believable, totally fascinating, eccentric party girl. And her work with Bolton in The Countess And The Common Man, a jaunty number that the duo deliver with accomplished brio, is both hilariously entertaining and a comment on the likely journey for Anya and Dmitry. O’Connor’s Lily is memorable for all the right reasons, a superb turn from a skilled performer.
Inevitably in this kind of royal romantic tale, there is a sinister presence, the villain of the piece. Here it is Gleb, a committed revolutionary who wants to ensure that the Romanov influence is definitely absent from Russia’s future. He has pride issues which seem to stem from a confusing story involving his father who is said to have died of shame. Was the shame because he did or did not participate in the slaughter of Anastasia’s family? This is never made clear enough.
As Gleb, Ramin Karimloo is ruggedly manly and capable of real malice. Gleb seems both repelled by and attracted to Anastasia, and Karimloo shows the confusion and misgivings of the character cleanly. The scene where he locks Anastasia in a room and produces a gun to kill her is played very skilfully – will Anastasia survive? Vocally, Karimloo is in terrific form and his pipes are put to good use in The Neva Flows and Still.
There is particularly excellent vocal work from Constantine Germanacos, whose solo, as Count Ipolitov, in Stay, I Pray You, is startlingly beautiful, majestically powerful. Special praise too should go to the very impressive dancing in the Swan Lake section of Quartet At The Ballet, particularly from Kyle Brown, and from the very mature performance given by the extraordinary Nicole Scimeca who plays Little Anastasia and her brother, Alexis.
Anastasia is terrific entertainment for all the family. If you let it beguile you, you will be richly rewarded. All of its elements hit their mark, the cast is very skilled, and the overall effect is pure theatrical joy. It might not be Hamilton or Dear Evan Hansen, but why would it need to be?
To be thoroughly engaging and tremendously enjoyable should surely be enough.