Sunday, May 7, 2017

Review: Anastasia's Uneven Journey

By Michael Block

If you were a child of the 90s, you likely remember the 20th Century Fox animated musical “Anastasia.” Bringing history and an infusion of fantasy, the film held its own up against the Disney juggernauts of the time. The movie may be most revered thanks to its soundtrack written by Broadway writing team Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. With help from Terrence McNally, Ahrens and Flaherty went back to the beginning and reimagined their hit 1997 animated film. If you're looking for a piece that honors said film, journey to Netflix and just watch it there. The stage adaptation is an uneven mash-up of the animated film as well as the 1956 film of the same name starring Ingrid Bergman.
photo by Matthew Murphy
It’s 1907 St. Petersburg. The Bolsheviks have invaded the Romanov palace. On their path to escape, Tsar Nicholas and his family are captured are executed. Tsarism is dead. Ten years later, St. Petersburg is now Leningrad and controlled by the Bolsheviks. But there is a sudden stirring, or rumor if you will, that Anastasia Romanov may have survived the attack and is alive. With the rumors swirling, two conmen, Dmitry and Vlad, a member of the old Royal Court, discover a young girl named Anya, who suffers from memory loss despite flashes of the past coming back continually. They deem her as their ticket out of Russia in hopes of convincing the Dowager Empress that this in fact Anastasia. From here on out, the story follows Anya remembering her past, discovering the truth of her history, and falling in love with Dmitry. If this doesn’t seem like enough, a Russian spy thriller plot line is inserted into the story to create minimal conflict as Gleb vows to kill the last remaining Romanov to avenge his father, only to find his greatest obstacle is falling in love with this girl he stumbled upon once or twice. For those familiar with the animated film, the central fantastical conflict came in the form of the deceased Rasputin and his sidekick, talking bat Bartok, coming in the dark of the night and trying to kill Anya. Eliminating these characters may be a blow to the loyalist of the film, but to create a more nuanced historical musical, they needed to go. The introduction of Gleb allows McNally to be heavy on the history. And it’s greatly appreciated. But the integration of the two plot elines was not nearly as polished or seamless as it needed to be. Had Gleb and the love triangle not been explored, and continued to be hammered in with the historically accurate depiction of “Swan Lake,” Anastasia the musical still exists and may in fact be stronger. Gleb, who feels as if he’s closer to a creepy stalker, simply complicates the story. Sure, audiences love love. Amplify Anya and Dmitry and the quota is fulfilled. With more score and a new character, there was a strong reliance on the movie when maintaining plot points. There were many moments where story was rushed, hoping you’d remember key details from the film. Additionally in Act II, we spend a good twenty minutes or so without our heroine in sight. We spend three songs in the subplot of Lily and Vlad and then another song with Gleb before Anya returns. Anastasia’s book is another example of how plot drops can not only hurt character arcs but hinder the overall narrative. McNally has done a fantastic job with the historical stakes but it felt as if Gleb just dropped in from a completely different idea. The original animated movie featured a memorable score from Ahrens and Flaherty but their heavy-hitters came early in the story. With the libretto being repurposed and a plethora of new hits, the creative had room to re-place “Once Upon a December” and “Journey to the Past” in better spots for the arc. Ending the first act with “Journey to the Past” was an exceptionally strong choice. Overall, the new tunes are quite good, though the historical ones felt a touch out of the world.
Whether the new interpretation deters you from the production, Anastasia is a visual triumph. Transporting you from Russia to Paris, director Darko Tresnjak and his team have forever raised the technological standards. Come for the music, stay for Aaron Rhyne’s breathtaking projection design. Sensational is an understatement. Since the production already tried to depart from the film, Rhyne didn’t try to recreate anything, rather visualize a brand new world. Alexander Dodge’s scenic design was minimal but was elevated thanks to the array of locales Rhyne depicted throughout the space. And these weren’t just static images, Rhyne made the world move. Without spoiling the experience, the train scene was something to be remembered. The way the train moved in unison with the hurried landscape positioned you onto the vehicle alongside our characters. But don’t think for one moment that costume designer Linda Cho would be outmatched. The curtain rises and nearly every performer who enters the stage glistens as Donald Holder’s lights hit each of the thousand stones on every gown and uniform. They sparkled with regality. Cho had the unique challenge of creating her own visual design while still honoring the source material. And she did a phenomenal job marrying the two in stunning fashion. When Anya enters in her iconic gown in Act II, there is sense of excitement that fills the theater.
photo by Matthew Murphy
For the most part, the characters live in a larger-than-life world. Perhaps you’d say they’re even animated. All except Gleb. With the character not necessarily being fleshed out completely through the text, Ramin Karimloo had a great obstacle in his path. Karimloo’s Gleb was very even keeled. He seemed to exist and do what was told. It’s a shame that such a strong performer was given such a blip of a role. Taking on the title role, Christy Altomore had some of the spunk and tenacity of the cartoon version but captured the essence of princess. The new story defused some of the fight Anya had but Altomore’s purity is what kept the character going. As Dmitry, Derek Klena was the epitome of musical theater love interest. He was big, vivacious, and ran on and off the stage with musical theater purpose. With so much truthfulness infused, it could have been toned down. Regardless, Klena’s charm and effortless smile proved why Anya just couldn’t refuse Dmitry’s love. John Bolton as Vlad was nothing short of fun. Matched by the exceptionally brilliant Caroline O’Connor as Countless Lily, the supporting characters stole the show more often than not. O’Connor’s performance is one of the most underrated performances of the season. If you’re looking for a perfect comedic supporting performance, look no further. As the authoritative Dowager Empress, Mary Beth Peil floated with supremacy.
Visually, Anastasia is dazzling. For a musical made for families, this production is a technological game changer. But it’s not perfect. You almost wish that there was one more step prior to the Broadway bow. Will Anastasia the musical stand the test of theatrical time? Likely not. But her impact will surely be felt.