A young woman in search of her past. A country in the midst of a revolution. Two schemers looking to escape the violence of a new Communist regime. These grand scenarios have the making for an opulent musical filled with drama, intrigue and love. Unfortunately, Anastasia, which opened last week on Broadway at the Broadhurst Theatre, is as hollow as a set of Russian nesting dolls.
The story of Anastasia Romanov, daughter of Nicholas II, the last Russian czar, has captivated the world since the family’s mysterious assassination in 1918. For years it was rumored that Anastasia survived (though ultimately proven false through DNA testing in 2007) and it is this glimmer of hope that provides inspiration for the musical, which is based on the 1997 animated film.
With a book by Terrence McNally and score by Stephen Flaherty (book) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics), one would hope that Anastasia reached the epic proportions of its source material. But under the anachronistic and often over-stylized direction of Darko Tresnjak, her journey is about as interesting as a bowl of beet borscht.
As Anya, who eventually reclaims her identity as the missing aristocrat, Christy Altomare does her best to carry the production, but the weight of its inadequacies is too heavy for her slight frame. Altomare is full-throttle in her commitment to discovering Anya’s past, but McNally’s book is obligatorily laden with flashing memories.
Anya’s cohorts, Vlad (John Bolton) and Dmitry (Derek Klena) unknowingly try to pass her off as the real deal to help them all cross the border to France, where they hope that the Dowager Empress (Mary Beth Peil), the last remaining Romanov, will accept Anya as Anastasia and bequeath her fortune. Peil brings an appropriate amount of gravitas, but Bolton is so schmaltzy you’d expect to see him in a Catskills revue, while Klena’s cadence sounds more California beach bum than Russian street urchin.
Of course, Anya needs an antagonist besides her own fleeting memories. Enter Gleb (Ramin Karimloo), a young(ish) Soviet official moving up the ranks of the new regime. Once receiving word that Anastasia may still be alive, Gleb intermittently tries to stop her passage to France and eventually shows up in Paris to finally put an end to the Romanov lineage. I think there might have been a typo in Karimloo’s script and he’s interpreted Gleb for glib. Delivering nothing more than a vacant stare and inexcusable aura of apathy, even Karimloo’s curtain call lacked energy.
That can’t be said for Caroline O’Connor’s Countess Lily, the dowager’s lady-in-waiting. O’Connor injects Act II with a much-needed vodka shot and a terrific production number. “Land of Yesterday” is set in Paris’s Neva Club, where all the Russian ex-pats apparently hang out. Though O’Connor doesn’t offer a shred of Russian aristocracy, what she does deliver is a fantastically entertaining performance filled with terrific comic timing. She’s in an entirely different show, but under these circumstances, I’m okay with that.
Adding to the conundrum is the production’s creative team. Linda Cho has designed gorgeous period costumes, but they’re nearly impossible to appreciate amid the assaulting projections by Aaron Rhyne, which I assume are meant to give depth to Alexander Dodge’s set design. Instead, plan on bringing Dramamine to the theatre for the never-ending, fast-moving renderings that morph from royal estates and forested railways to cartography and the ghosts of Anya’s past. Someone, please send the memo: less is more.
In spite of my personal misgivings, the audience (stacked with screechy high school girls) went wild at the performance I saw. During her curtain call, Altomare seemed just as surprised at the overwhelming response. Or maybe it was the sleepwalking Karimloo that made her appear that much more appreciative.
Though I can’t predict Anastasia’s future, I have a feeling it will soon be another chapter in the fading past of the Romanov dynasty.
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Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Follow him on social media at @roodeloo.