Monday, May 30, 2016

Theater Review: Anastasia -- Hartford Stage

Christy Altomare and company of Anastasia. Photo: Joan Marcus
Breathtaking Sets Bring Fantasy to Life in Broadway-Bound Anastasia
By Lauren Yarger
Revolutionary Russia and Gay Paris are among the locales brought to life in sumptuous, mind-blowing detail in a musical adaptation of the animated film Anastasia getting its world premiere at Hartford Stage before heading to Broadway next season.

Darko Tresnjak reunites with Choreographer Peggy Hickey from the Tony-Award-winning A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder to bring the Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens (Ragtime) musical (with a book by Terrance McNally) to the stage. Much of the basic plot from the 1997 animated movie featuring the voices of Meg Ryan, John Cusack, Angela Lansbury and others remains intact, but some characters, like villain Rasputin and his magic spell, have been eliminated while others have been added or expanded for the stage adaptation. The score contains the film’s Oscar-nominated tunes including the stirring “Journey to the Past,” and the beautifully haunting “Once Upon a December” as well as a slew of new songs to fill out the two-and-a-half hour production.

The story follows orphan Anya (Christy Altomare), who has no memory of her past, as she joins with conmen Dimitry (Derek Klena) and Vlad (John Bolton) to try to convince Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna (Mary Beth Peil of TV’s “Dawson’s Creek" and “The Good Wife”) that she is none other than her granddaughter, Anastasia. The old woman, living in Paris after the Russian Revolution, has posted a reward for her granddaughter’s safe return in the hope that rumors about her escaping death when the rest of the royal family was executed are indeed true.

Military leader Gleb (Manoel Felciano) wonders whether Anya could be the real Anastasia too and follows the trio to Paris to finish the job of his father who executed Tsar Nicholas II (Constantine Germanacos), Tsarina Alexandra (Lauren Backman) Alexandra and their children, Olga (Samantha Sturm), Tatiana (Shina Ann Morris), Maria (Alida Michal) and Alexei (Nicole Scimeca) – and maybe Anastasia who would have been 17 at the time (Molly Rushing ) -- to usher in an era of Communism in Russia.

Along the way, Anya and Dimitry find unexpected romance as she struggles to remember who she is and while memories of a long-ago family and life haunt her dreams (in amazing Video and Projection Design by Aaron Rhyne).

Vlad and his old flame, Countess Lily Malevsky-Malevitch (Caroline O'Connor), who serves as a lady-in--waiting of sorts to the Dowager Empress, reignite a romantic spark and give the production most of its comedy, including one especially amusing number, “The Countess and the Common Man,” where love eternal needs a bit of oil to continue springing as aging bodies creak. Bravo for developing older characters and letting them have some romance on stage. Tresnjak lets them have fun and the solid stage actors (Bolton was in Spamalot and Curtains on Broadway and O’Connor was in A Christmas Story and Chicago) make the most of it.

Helping to bring the action to life is Hickey’s choreography (which includes a snippet from Swan Lake) and Linda Cho’s period costumes which include some breathtakingly beautiful gowns.

Derek Klena and Christy Altomare. Photo: Joan Marcus
The most tantalizing stars in this production, though, are the resplendent sets designed by Alexander Dodge (who designed the stunning sets for Rear Window, Private Lives and A Gentleman’s Guide at Hartford Stage). The royal palace, St. Petersburg, a train ride and 1920 Paris among other locations all come to life in vivid detail. Imposing interiors combine with the video projections to give added depth to the stage.  (The complexity of the technical elements of the production prompted a delay in the run’s previews and  a performance was cancelled. The show officially opened May 27 and because of demand for tickets, has extended through June 19). Check out the costume and set design here.

While it’s exciting to see another Broadway-bound musical launch here at Hartford Stage it could use some tweaks before is hits Broadway (the production is expected to go into a Shubert theater during the 2016-2017 season) – and us New York critics. Most problematic is the opening and way into the story inspired by true incidents in turn of the 20th Century Russia. We first see Anastasia at 6 (played by Scimeca) when her grandmother presents her with a music box before heading to Paris. Time passes and then a more mature Anastasia is living a royal life at the palace, entertaining suitors, attending balls and enjoying the devotion of her father and enduring her mother’s critical tones. It’s all rather tedious and leaves practically no suspense about Anastasia’s fate. An added disappointment is that the music box loses some of its magic (there is a special key needed in the movie).

There’s very little suspense or tension in the plot at all, despite the addition of Gleb as a villain of sorts. A glimpse of the Romanovs’ execution is a bit much to include in a show that otherwise would be excellent for families with children and its inclusion doesn’t add anything to the plot. There are several scenes that easily could be cut as well as they do little to propel the story, so the whole thing seems very promising, but in need of some focus by book writer McNally and polishing by Tresnjak.

I wouldn’t cut the Gleb character totally. He gives historic perspective, interesting for adults in the audience, and Feliciano (who was nominated for a Featured Actor Tony for the Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd) lends a lovely singing voice to the mix. Increasing the love-triangle angle with him, Dmitri and Anya, however, might help heighten some tension and be more interesting than playing up Gleb’s communist manifesto and unbelievable showdown with Anya at gunpoint.

Altomare and Klena have good chemistry on stage, particularly as sparring partners whose frustration with each other masks a growing affection, finally realized in a pleasing ballad called “In a Crowd of Thousands.” I found myself wishing Anya were a little more confident and effervescent, however, to stand out– after all, role models on stage for young girls are hard to come by.

Peil lights up the stage and gives excellent emotional depth to the relatively minor role. We sense her dignity as an empress, her frustrations as a mother, her love for her family and her depression when she wearies of being presented with women making false claims to be Anastasia.

With some tweaking, this beautiful-to-look-at story will provide another hot ticket for young girls who are looking for new characters in which to see themselves besides Wicked’s  Elphaba and Glinda and will have people on Broadway saying a “tsar” is born.

Anastasia animates at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford, through June 19. Performances are Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Sunday at 7:30 pm; Friday and Saturday, 8 pm; Saturday and Sunday at 2 om; Wednesday matinee 2 pm June 1. Weekly schedules vary. Tickets are limited with some shows sold out. Prices: $20-$115: www.hartfordstage.org860- 527-5151.

Tickets also are available through TodayTix. Beginning 12 am every Monday morning, a mobile lottery will be available on the free mobile app for entries throughout the week until Saturday at noon. Winners will be notified at that time if they have won two $25 tickets to the Sunday matinee performance of Anastasia the following day. This exclusive TodayTix lottery price is discounted more than 75 percent. 

Additional Credits:
Hair and Wig Design by Charles G. LaPointe, Lighting Design by Donald Holder; Sound Design by Peter Hylenski, Music Direction by Thomas Murray, Associate Music Direction by Steven Malone, Orchestrations by Doug Besterman, Vocal and Text Coaching by Claudia Hill-Sparks; Fight Choreography by Jeff Barry, Vocal Arrangements by Stephen Flaherty; Dance Music Arrangements by David Chase.

Additional casting:

Lauren Blackman…. Isadora Duncan

James Brown III…. Hotel Manager

Max Clayton…. Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake

Janet Dickinson…. Coco Chanel

Constantine Germanacos…. Count Ipolitov

Rayanne Gonzales…. Gertrude Stein

Ken Krugman…. Pablo Picasso, Gorlinksy

Kevin Ligon…. Ernest Hemingway, Count Leopold

Alida Michal…. Marfa, Odette in Swan Lake

Shina Ann Morris…. Tatyana

Kevin Munhall…. Russian Doorman

Molly Rushing…. Anna

Johnny Stellard…. Django Reinhardt, Von Rothbart in Swan Lake

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)
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