'Anastasia" Hits Mark With Target Audience
Young women and girls in search of a new Broadway role model need look no further than the title character in “Anastasia,” the sumptuous fairy tale of a musical that should please the kids, satisfy the sentimental and comfort those who thought the old templates for musical comedy were passé. The broad strokes of the familiar — a romantic young couple, a villain in hot pursuit, comic supporting characters, an endearing family member— can still be irresistible when combined with taste, craftsmanship and a willing suspension of disbelief.
Director Darko Tresnjak, who earned a Tony for “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder,” together with much of that first-class design team, weave an enchanting spell targeted to young distaff audiences — a built-in demographic that should reap plenty of rubles both here, on the road and abroad.
The musical is “inspired” by 20th Century Fox’s 1997 animated film and the 1956 movie starring Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brynner — which had a decidedly more mature script by Arthur Laurents (based on a Marcelle Maurette play adapted by Guy Bolton) — as it tells the story of Anya (Christy Altomare), a young amnesiac in post-Revolution Russia who is convinced by Dmitry (Derek Klena) and Vlad (John Bolton), a pair of street Svengalis, that she is the youngest daughter of Czar Nicholas II, who is rumored to have escaped her family’s fate.
Anya is groomed to present herself to the surviving royal grandmother (Mary Beth Peil) and aide, Countess Lily (Caroline O’Connor), now living in Paris, so Anya can claim the crown and the cons can get their reward.
Songwriters Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, who penned the tunes for the animated film — and earned an Oscar nomination for the popular pre-“Frozen” anthem “Journey to the Past” — reprise their duties here, adapting their melodic (if exposition-crammed) score to the stage. New numbers have been added to pump up the emotions, excitement and comic shtick, and to fill in the gaps in the re-fashioned and expedient-to-a-fault script by Terrence McNally.
The musical has been sharpened since its premiere at Hartford Stage last year, with more sophisticated staging for the second act opener — and major credit going to Aaron Rhyne’s hi-def projections, which bring a sense of cinematic sweep and depth to the show. Also beefed up is the part of Gleb, the musical’s autocratic-yet-conflicted Bolshevik, played with a dark dreaminess and clarion pipes by Ramin Karimloo.
But some of the show’s head-scratchers remain: A scene in which Anya decides her future after advice from her nana still seems musically empty. Gleb’s initial attraction to Anya remains wafer thin. And having Anya embrace her common hero while running through the Paris streets in a satin gown and tiara is not only absurd but sends a mixed message at the musical’s end. (But who can blame the girl for not wanting to give up one of Linda Cho’s many breathtaking outfits?)
As the young woman who finds not only her identity but sense of self, Altomare takes the spotlight with the same assured conviction that Anya does when she takes the crown. And if thoughts of Julie Andrews pop up on occasion, it isn’t inappropriate — or undeserved, given Altomare’s vocal strength and the “My Fair Princess” theme.
Klena fills in the generic hero outline with his own boyish charm, humor and gorgeous voice. Though there are no real romantic duets for the leads, they make a perfect animated pair, and strike a special bond with “In a Crowd of Thousands,” an unexpected emotional highlight.
As the Dowager Empress, Peil brings imperial gravitas, as well as a grandmother’s heartbreak and joy to the role. Bolton’s count-turned-con and O’Connor’s libidinous lady-in-waiting score big with their comic turns. Their mad ham waltz, “The Countess and the Common Man,” is delightfully staged by Peggy Hickey, whose choreography includes a rousing expat number “Land of Yesterday,” as well as a bit of “Swan Lake” and lots of swirling ghosts around Alexander Dodge’s elegant set, exquisitely lit by Donald Holder and enhanced by Peter Hylenski’s vivid sound design.
In this alt-reality, history is rewritten, a princess finds her bliss — and an old-fashioned musical likely lives happy ever after.