Monday, July 10, 2017

A Lush Historical Fairy Tale

Review: Anastasia

Derek Klena as Dimitri and Christy Altomare as Anya in Anastasia.

As someone who has never seen the 1997 animated feature film Anastasia, I bring no preexisting expectations to the musical version currently playing the Broadhurst Theatre. Which is perhaps for the best, as the songwriting team of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens have been very upfront about the massive amount of changes their work has undergone in the transition from screen to stage. Entire characters have been jettisoned (no villainous Rasputin and his anthropomorphic bat sidekick), many of the songs have been reordered and/or recontextualized, and the tone of the piece has been shifted towards something more complex than the typically black and white morality tale of a Disney-esque animated film.

Whether this "maturing" of the story amounts to actual and improvement is open for interpretation. There is no denying the Flaherty and Ahrens' score (which includes the Oscar-nominated "Journey to the Past," here relocated to the end of the first act) is a work of beauty, a grand collection of both old and new songs that have a sweeping melodic artistry. This beauty is occasionally betrayed by the relatively modest ensemble size, which doesn't always have the vocal heft the music seems to call for. This is no fault of the very talented performers, just a result of the economic reality that paying for dozens of chorus members is a luxury most shows cannot afford. 

And while Terrance McNally's book does a fine job of weaving the various songs together, the more adult tone invites a more critical look at the narrative than it can quite sustain. In telling the story of the lost heir to the last Russian czar, Anastasia attempts to milk a lot of drama from the question of whether the amnesiac Anya is actually the presumed dead title character. But a show called Anastasia with no Anastasia wouldn't make much sense, and the repeated flashbacks Anya has of her slain relatives leave little doubt she is in fact the missing Grand Duchess. (This narrative issue is successful solved in the second act, when the question becomes not "Is Anya Anastasia?" but "Will her grandmother, the Dowager Empress, recognize her?") It also feels odd that a show which puts so much effort into at least the semblance of historical accuracy leaves the issue of why the Russians killed Anastasia's family almost wholly unexplored.

Thankfully, the gorgeous physical production and fine collection of performances makes it easier to look past these logical issues. Alexander Dodge's physical set is perhaps a tad shallow, but it is brought to vivid life by Aaron Rhyne's stunning projections. Rhyne's work adds depth and detail to the show's many physical locations, finding stage equivalents to cinematic techniques like pans and dissolves which look like nothing else on Broadway. And Linda Cho's stunningly ornate costumes are showstoppers in and of themselves, glittering ensembles of saturated color that grant the entire affair an air of wonderfully grandiose fantasy. 

In the title role, Christy Altomare is excellent as a thoroughly modern Broadway heroine. Her utter commitment to the role brings a level of authenticity and dramatic stakes to the character that frankly isn't there in the writing, and even though it's obvious she's the missing Grand Duchess, Altomare's palpable doubt almost makes you question that assumption. And while her voice is quite lovely, the true secret to her success with Anya's many songs is her ability to convey every nuance contained within Ahrens' words and Flaherty's music. 

As Dimitri, a street hustler initially wanting to pass Anya off as Anastasia for the reward money, Derek Klena has a dashingly chiseled visage that looks as if it jumped out of an animated storybook. Dimitri begins the show as a bit of a jerk, but Klena slowly wins you over as his character becomes less interested in money and more invested in helping Anya realize her destiny. Klena also possesses a soaring tenor the score doesn't utilize right way, but really springs to the fore by the time of his rousing solo "My Petersburg" in the middle of the first act. And John Bolton is a delightfully endearing clown as Dimitri's partner in crime Vlad, whose past connections with the Russian royal family are key to helping our leads meet their goals.

As the Dowager Empress, Mary Beth Peil initially seems underused, with a brief appearance in the show's prologue her only stage time in Act I. But once the action moves to Paris, and convincing the Dowager Empress that Anya is her long lost granddaughter becomes the main plot, Peil comes alive, packing an enormous amount of emotional variety into her scenes (which happen to feature some of McNally's best writing). Watching the range of emotions that wash over Peil's face in the climatic scene, from bitter rage to stubborn disbelief to overwhelming joy, is one of the highlights of the evening.

There's a lot to like about Anastasia, especially if one can get past the fact that this stage adaptation uses the animated film as more of a jumping off point than an actual blueprint. The writing ranges from good to excellent, even if the direction by Tony winner Darko Tresnjak allows the show to drag more than it needs to. The upside of this sometimes slower pace is you have ample time to appreciate the opulence of the physical production, the lush melodies, and the winsome performances of the cast. It's refreshing to see a family show that is willing to trust in its audience's appreciation of stagecraft rather than beat them over the head with spectacle, even if a tad more flash would be appreciated.

2 comments:

  1. I also loved Caroline O'Conners performance! I think she should have been nomintated for the Tony over Mary Beth Piel.

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    1. I felt O'Conners' performance was too broad for the style of the show; it's not built to withstand to kind of mugging she does. I also felt the way her material is integrated into the story hurts her. She's not in the first act at all, and then you spend a *lot* of time with her at the top of the second act when you want the show to be checking back in with Anya and Dimitri.

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