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Theatre in Review: Anastasia (Broadhurst Theatre)

Ramin Karimloo, Christy Altomare. Photo: Matthew Murphy

The Broadhurst Theatre is owned by the Shubert Organization, which has as an archive, maintained in the Lyceum Theatre; it includes correspondence, contracts, design sketches, scripts, and scores from its one hundred-plus years of existence. It is a rich resource for theatre historians, and I only mention it because, at a recent performance of Anastasia, I began to wonder if someone, rooting around in the Shubert Archive, had found a drawer labeled "Shubert, J.J.: Unproduced Operettas"? Given its ponderous score, European settings, and melodramatic book centering on the romantic problems of royalty, this new musical resembles nothing so much as one of the stolid, romantic, light-classical entertainments -- such as The Desert Song or The Student Prince -- that once turned up regularly in Shubert theatres.

This is the umpteenth fictionalized treatment of the story of Anna Anderson, who, in 1922, after a stay in a Berlin mental hospital, announced that she was really Anastasia, the only survivor of the Russian royal family, who were wiped out by revolutionaries in 1918. Anderson's case has inspired a Broadway play, a film (which nabbed Ingrid Bergman an Oscar), a flop musical Anya with a score based on themes by Rachmaninoff (fifteen performances in 1965), and a television film starring Amy Irving. Terrence McNally's book is based on the 1997 animated film of the same name, which featured a score by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, which they have expanded for Broadway.

McNally is among the wittiest observers of contemporary manners currently working in the theatre; in addition, he has successfully adapted two seemingly impossible novels -- Kiss of the Spider Woman and Ragtime -- to the musical stage, so it's hard to believe that he is behind Anastasia's rather stiff book. After a florid opening, in which little Anastasia says goodbye to her grandmother, the Dowager Empress, who is hightailing it to Paris, and a dance sequence in which gilded royalty waltz around a ballroom while revolution surges outside, we arrive on a street in Moscow in 1927. The number that follows, "A Rumor in St. Petersburg," tries to be a mordant commentary on life under Communism, but it's pretty mild stuff, filled with lyrics that are cute rather than cutting. ("We stand behind our leaders/And stand in line for bread!/We're good and loyal comrades/And our fav'rite color's red!"). This is Moscow on the Hudson, a musical comedy version of Stalinist Russia, and it's our first clue that Anastasia is mostly interested in platitudes and rose-colored romance.

Anya, the heroine, is a Moscow street sweeper, afflicted with amnesia but haunted by the conviction that she must get to Paris. She runs into Dmitry, a streetwise young con man, and Vlad, a dubious survivor of the aristocracy, who coach her into pretending that she is Anastasia -- a job that proves surprisingly easy, since she keeps dredging up memories that jibe with what is known about the girl she is impersonating. Soon, Anya, Dmitry, and Vlad are Paris-bound, aiming to meet up with the Dowager Empress and have, they hope, a big payday for facilitating a Romanov reunion. Even sooner, Anastasia and Dmitry are making eyes at each other -- a bad idea, since, as Vlad points out, if Anya is accepted as Anastasia, they will be separated by an insuperable class divide.

It's tough to care about a cast of characters that includes a leading lady with no fixed identity, a pair of grifters, and a bitter old recluse who is tired of turning away imposters; nevertheless, the principals do their best to put over the improbable plot. Christy Altomare manages to convey Anya's confusion and distress, and given "Journey to the Past" -- one of the score's very few examples of vintage Ahrens and Flaherty -- she confidently delivers a showstopper. The role of Dmitry -- a male ingénue in street mufti -- is heavy going, but Derek Klena's good looks and soaring voice are definite assets. (He also has a decent number, "My Petersburg," that puts a little zip into the first act.) The hugely talented Ramin Karimloo is saddled with the thankless role of Gleb, a Soviet official who follows Anya -- for whom he secretly yearns -- to Paris, with orders to rub her out, if necessary; he strikes many grim poses and sings beautifully. (He also figures in the remarkably unsuspenseful climax.) Mary Beth Peil brings her patented grand manner to the role of the Dowager Empress, looking world-weary and wishing everyone would leave her alone. Providing not-very-comic relief is John Bolton as Vlad, especially in his scenes with Caroline O'Connor as Countess Lily, the Dowager Empress' lady-in-waiting. Lily, a character seemingly conceived to play to O'Connor's strengths as a performer, is an especially baffling figure; would the aristocratic attendant to White Russian royalty really slip out at night to perform hot-cha dance numbers in louche Paris nightclubs?

The show fetishizes the sufferings of gorgeous aristocrats even as the cynical plot at its center gives way to hearts and flowers all around, with Dmitry Redeemed by Love and ready to make The Ultimate Sacrifice, and the Dowager Empress getting all twinkly and handing out nuggets of romantic advice: "Anastasia has found herself another kind of prince -- one of character, not of birth." The score is loaded with songs that tend to announce their intentions in their titles, like "Paris Holds the Key (to Your Heart)." The number "Quartet at the Ballet" features the principals at a performance of Swan Lake, spread out over four opera boxes and voicing their agony. ("She's near at hand/Yet here I stand/My heart and mind at war/The times must change/The world must change/And love is not what revolution's for.")

If you're in the mood for this kind of colorful Barbara Cartland nonsense, Anastasia goes down pretty easily, although Darko Tresnjak's direction never really isolates the juicy melodrama at the show's heart. (The choreography, by Peggy Hickey, relies on waltz patterns, although there is a rather jarring Charleston at the top of the second act, and she makes strenuous use of O'Connor, when Lily runs riot in a number called "Land of Yesterday.") The show has a sumptuous look -- perhaps too sumptuous: In addition to the opera house interior mentioned above, Alexander Dodge's scenery includes a grand chamber that is, at different times, a room in the Romanovs' palace, an abandoned theatre, and an anteroom in the Dowager Empress' Paris quarters. These changes are made with the assistance of Aaron Rhyne's projections, which are embedded in the set design.

Farther upstage, however, is one of the largest projection screens I've yet seen used in a theatre, which Rhyne covers with astonishing, high-resolution imagery of a Moscow street, a Russian spy agency (filled to the rafters with card cabinets), the Paris skyline, the Seine River, and Paris' Alexander Bridge, among other things. It's a highly sophisticated achievement, and, I fear, equally wrong-headed. The images are so vast and contain such depth and detail that they constitute an ongoing distraction, dwarfing the actors, at times to the vanishing point. The use of swooping camera moves is especially intrusive, for example, in a traveling sequence set in a skeletal train car placed against footage of the passing countryside. Many images -- including sunsets, sunrises, and a forest bursting with cherry blossoms -- feature a kind of pink frosting that puts one in mind of the popular artist Thomas Kinkade.

On the plus side, Linda Cho's costumes include dazzling royal gowns, chic Parisian frocks, severe Soviet uniforms, and Swan Lake tutus. Donald Holder's lighting is classically beautiful. Peter Hylenski's blessedly clear, transparent sound design also includes some vividly effective battle effects.

Anastasia has done very good business in previews, suggesting that the film has a large and eager following, but in a Broadway season loaded with innovative, risk-taking musicals, it is notable for turning one of the last century's most traumatic events into a thoroughly artificial musical melodrama of the old school, populated by characters of the purest cardboard. Are we sure that J. J. didn't already produce it, once upon a time? -- David Barbour

(25 April 2017)

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