by Michael Bracken
Whatever you do, don’t go to Anastasia at the Broadhurst Theatre expecting to see the ghost of Ingrid Bergman or Yul Brynner; they’re nowhere to be found. And don’t expect to see Rasputin, the bane of the Romanovs in the 1997 animated feature. He’s been replaced, sort of, by Gleb (Ramin Karimloo), a rising star at the politburo whose father was among the Bolshevik rebels that killed the Tsar and most if not all of his family.
Yet even without Rasputin, the Broadway incarnation of Anastasia, with music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, who wrote the songs for the cartoon, hews closer to the animation than to the earlier grown-up movie. Book is by Terrence McNally.
With elegant sets by Alexander Dodge, accented by iridescent snowflakes, and elaborate costumes by Linda Cho, this Anastasia nicely divides in two, with Act I set primarily in St. Petersburg and Act II in Paris. Act I is a bit bland, pretty to look at but short on substance. It seems to take longer than it should to tee up the drama that will come to pass in Act II, and the characters seem flat.
Anya (Christy Altomare) is an orphaned street sweeper who can’t remember life before the orphanage. She happens upon Dmitry (Derek Klena) and Vlad (John Bolton), a pair of scoundrels looking to cash in on an offer by the exiled Dowager Empress (Mary Beth Peil) of a reward for producing her granddaughter, Anastasia, rumored to have miraculously escaped execution at the hands of the revolutionaries. They tutor Anya with facts and figures about Anastasia and the imperial family, and she occasionally surprises them with knowledge of an arcane detail they don’t recall having told her.
A chemistry develops between Anastasia and Dmitry, and they slowly but surely fall in love. Vlad saves his romantic charms for Paris, for which the trio sets off near the end of the act.
Paris is quite a contrast to St. Petersburg. Hemlines are higher, and so is the energy level of the production, due in no small part to the antics of Caroline O’Connor as Countess Lily. She is the sole lady in waiting for the Dowager Empress, and with the empress, she is all duty and decorum. But when she’s on her own, watch out.
She sings “Land of Yesterday,” with the help of a chorus as émigrés, about past glories in Russia, wistful with an edge (one of the few edges in the production). Then she and Vlad rekindle an old flame in the duet, “The Countess and the Common Man.” Her take-no-prisoners attitude is infectious. She brings out the best in Bolton’s Vlad, whose attempts at humor in Act I have little zing but come to life when he’s with Lily.
Through the countess, Anastasia is given an audience with the Dowager Empress, played with imperial dignity by Piel, and far be it from me to tell you what happens after that.
A recurring theme of Anastasia is the importance of finding and being true to yourself. For Anastasia, the play is a journey toward self-knowledge. This gets hammered home in ballads and anthems and reduces the putative grand duchess to a noble notion rather than nobility. Most of the songs from the cartoon remain intact, supplemented by a host of new melodies. The music is tuneful, but it’s bogged down by the weight of needing to inspire.
Altomare is a likable Anya with a wonderful voice, but she’s not a particularly commanding stage presence. (Neither is Klena or Bolton, with both of whom she shares the stage for much of the first act.) Neither director Darko Tresnjak nor his writers have found a way to forge a connection between leading lady and audience, so we’re not as engaged as we should be. A little less idealism and a little more human imperfection might have given Anya some much-needed texture.
Photos: Matthew Murphy
Open-ended run at the Broadhurst Theatre (235 W 44th Street). http://www.anastasiabroadway.com/. 2 hours 30 minutes with one intermission.