Broadway Review: ‘Anastasia’ Brings An Animated Russian Heroine To Stage Life

Matthew Murphy

It’s probably inevitable that Google Maps, or a clever facsimile of Google Maps, would someday star on Broadway. And here it is in Anastasia, a sprawling expansion on the 1997 animated film, that opened tonight following a developmental run at the Hartford Stage. Alexander Dodge’s set is monumental, with towering columns that allow plenty of space for Aaron Rhyne’s projections, which frequently switch from maps of Russian and France to photorealistic images of trains, countryside and palaces from St. Petersburg to Paris.

So while you may not leave the Broadhurst Theatre humming the scenery, you may be a bit dizzy from the whizzing and zooming as maps – often with Cyrillic name places – and locations urge you along the journey from the Russian revolution to luxe exile in France. Whether you leave humming the actual melodies by Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics), building a more serious score to Terrence McNally’s book than they wrote for the film, well that’s another matter. It’s not altogether impossible.

“Anastasia” on Broadway. Matthew Murphy

This is the story, as an early number has it, of “The Last Days of the Romanovs,” when Nicholas and Alexandra and various relatives are shot dead, little Anastasia goes MIA and her beloved Nana has escaped to Paris. In the city, a pair of schemers auditions young girls in search of one to pass off as the missing girl, present her to the Dowager Empress and get their hands on her fortune. A starving amnesiac street sweeper seems perfect for the part, because she is indeed Anastasia (or maybe not, but a music box offers fairly definitive proof). The three set off on the treacherous journey to Paris.

Darko Tresnjak, the envelope-pushing director (A Gentleman’s Guide To Love & Murder, which also started out at Hartford Stage, where he’s artistic director), and choreographer Peggy Hickey have built a solid machine to make a  lugubrious story pass by swiftly, if not always gracefully. They have in Christy Altomare a near-perfect heroine whose only flaw is her flawlessness; as Anstasia, she seems too blandly resilient for anything more complex than a cartoon character’s reinvention. She has the clarion mezzo of a Disney heroine and that archetype’s signature chipper indomitability. She’s lovely.

A similar quality – or, rather, lack of distinguishing qualities – applies to the two men vying for her: Gleb (Ramin Karimloo, of Les Misérables), the Javert-like Commie conscript charged with tracking her down-and-out in Paris and concluding the death business with the Tsarist class; and Dmitry (Derek Klena), the younger and better-looking of the two scamps who organize what they think is a fraud but turns out maybe not to be. They all have very excellent teeth.

Nicole Scimeca as the young Anastasia and Mary Beth Peil in “Anastasia.” Matthew Murphy

Like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which opened just behind it, Anastasia features a ballet sequence – a smidgen of Swan Lake for the displaced White Russians. It’s one of the more dizzyingly tricked-out scenes, at the Paris Opera, where a performance of  Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring is haughtily dismissed in the lushly costumed show (Linda Cho did the gorgeous clothes). For a show built around a death-defying journey and a highly sentimental reunion, Anastasia is surprisingly mild. Except for those hyperkinetic projections. And the – what’s the opposite of juveniles? – the comic secondary love story, which involves raffish John Bolton as Vlad, Dmitry’s elder co-conspirator, and Caroline O’Connor, a spectacularly agile and funny Countess Lily, confidant of the Dowager Empress who’s less lady-in-waiting than champing at the bit.

And one more thing: Anastasia has Mary Beth Peil (The Good Wife) as the Dowager Empress, and she’s glorious. Not only does she remind us of her chops as a terrific stage actress after countless TV roles, but she reveals her background as a singer of operatic stature with the score’s two best songs, “Once Upon A December,” which launches the show, and Act II’s “Close The Door,” which is a beautiful number, period. She’s better than any old music box.

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