235 West 44th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through January 7, $69-$189
A kind of cult — er, rather large fan base — has grown up around Anastasia, Don Bluth’s 1997 animated movie about the fall of the Romanovs in Russia and the possible survival of one of the tsar’s daughters. When I went to see the new musical version, which opened last night at the Broadhurst, the theater was packed with big groups of young girls who were giddy with delight at the prospect of seeing their beloved movie brought to life on the stage; they then proceeded to shriek in unison at their favorite romantic scenes, making the experience feel like The Ed Sullivan Show when the Beatles appeared. The many twentysomething women in the audience were perhaps less giddy than wistful and teary-eyed as they watched the theatricalization of a film that has meant so much to them since they first saw the animated movie back in the late 1990s, when they were the same age as the shrieking girls are now. Thus, the show appears to have a built-in, review-proof audience. They oohed and aahed during the disappointing first act, set in St. Petersburg in 1906-7, 1917, and 1927, which catered to the younger fans at the expense of the story, but the second act, set in 1927 Paris, was enchanting, taking a far more adult approach, a treat for young and old alike.
Anastasia features a book by four-time Tony winner Terrence McNally (Kiss of the Spider Woman, Love! Valour! Compassion!) and music and lyrics by Tony winners Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, the same trio that turned E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime into a hit musical in 1998; Flaherty and Ahrens wrote the score for the animated film, and six of those songs, including the Oscar-nominated “Journey to the Past,” are in the Broadway show, along with sixteen new tunes. Neither of the Fox films was completely true to the real story of the Romanovs and Anastasia, and McNally has fiddled with the truth as well, but this is not historical fiction as much as romantic fantasy. The Grand Duchess Anastasia (first played by Nicole Scimeca, then Molly Rushing and Christy Altomare as she grows up) is one of four daughters of Tsar Nicholas II (Constantine Germanacos) and Tsarina Alexandra (Lauren Blackman), who live in luxury in the royal palace, shut off from the real world. Old Russia is coming to an end, but the only one who seems to realize that is the tsar’s mother, the Dowager Empress (Mary Beth Peil), who decides to spend her declining years in Paris. The seven-year-old Anastasia wants to go with her beloved grandmother, who gives her a special music box to remember her by until Anastasia can come visit her. Ten years later, the Romanovs are still awash in elegance and finery when they are attacked during the Bolshevik revolution, as the Communists take control of Russia.
Amid postrevolutionary poverty and destitution, rumors swirl that Anastasia might still be alive. Seeking a reward, Dmitry (Derek Klena) and Vlad (John Bolton) try to find a girl they can train to be an impostor, then present to the Dowager Empress. Also on the hunt for Anastasia is Czekist Gleb Vaganov (Ramin Karimloo), a rising star in the Communist Party who wants to make sure all of the Romanovs are dead. He meets and offers help to a street sweeper named Anya (Altomare), but she refuses. Dmitry and Vlad soon believe that Anya, suffering from amnesia, is the right girl for their plan. As they scheme to escape to Paris in 1927 and bring Anya to the Dowager Empress, little memories come back to Anya that hint that she might actually be the real Anastasia. In creating a new telling of the true story, McNally has replaced the evil, villainous Rasputin with the significantly more human, heartthrob-handsome Gleb, while also creating the energetic and fun-loving Countess Lily (Caroline O’Connor), the Dowager Empress’s lady-in-waiting and a potential love interest for Vlad. Choreographer Peggy Hickey offers numerous dances as the action moves from 1906 Russia to 1927 France, including a troika, a waltz, the Charleston, and even ballet, making excellent use of Linda Cho’s costumes, which range from spectacular ball gowns to peasant drab. Meanwhile, Aaron Rhyne’s projections, which often evoke travel, get more creative once the maps go away, enhancing Alexander Dodge’s cleverly functional set. Tony-winning director Darko Tresnjak (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, The Killer) can’t save the dreary sentimentality of the first act but really opens things up in the vastly more entertaining second act, which begins with “Paris Holds the Key (to Your Heart),” immediately letting us know that things are going to get better. All the while, the shrieking continues, culminating in a rafters-shaking noise at the finale. Spoiler alert: Ten years ago, the real Anastasia’s bones were found, with DNA evidence confirming that she died with the rest of her family in the Bolshevik attack. Of course, McNally, et al. opt for a different ending for the musical, and you’ll be very glad they did.