Glorious

Review: ‘Anastasia’ Lives Again on Broadway

The legend of the Romanov who reputedly escaped the Russian royal family’s massacre in 1918 is bought to life in a sparkling Broadway show.

If you are particular about Russian political and cultural history, you might want to be gripping a stress ball before taking your seat at the musical Anastasia on Broadway.

If you want to watch a proudly old-school Broadway musical with the best snow effects ever (thank you, projection designer Aaron Rhyne), however, then no stress balls needed.

Despite a closing curtain of narrative ambiguity, this lushly orchestrated, gently delightful musical, directed by Darko Tresnjak, takes the view that the famous daughter of the Romanovs did survive the massacre of the Russian imperial family at the hands of the Bolsheviks in 1918, and—having fallen in with a loveable conman and louche aristocrat—sets off for Paris to prove her identity to her surviving grandmother.

The musical is based on the 1997 animated film, which starred Meg Ryan as Anastasia and which also featured Rasputin as the baddie. He is absent here.

It’s also based on the 1956 movie, which saw Ingrid Bergman’s Anastasia fall in love with Yul Brynner as a general who grooms Anastasia to behave as the real Anastasia would have, not realizing—yes!—she is, or believes herself to be, anyway, the real Anastasia.

History records none of this as actually happening, although the story of Anna Anderson—the most famous of ‘Anastasia’ imposters—long intrigued many, and continues to do so even after DNA tests conducted on bone fragments in 2009 proved the while Romanov clan was killed in 1918.

Anastasia the musical, as Kellyanne Conway might say, chooses its own alternative facts, and does so with gorgeously sweeping music by Stephen Flaherty, courtly, crisp choreography by Peggy Hickey, grand designs by Alexander Dodge, including imposing windows, pink blossom, and a very simple open train carriage that kicks the mode-of-transport ass of Miss Saigon’s helicopter, and quite simply the best period costumes on Broadway by Linda Cho, which glimmer, slink, and stun.

The very un-magical Charlie and The Chocolate Factory could learn a few lessons from Anastasia.

When the musical opens, Terrence McNally’s book cleverly has the past already feel otherworldly. As the young Anastasia bids farewell to her grandmother, the Dowager Empress (Mary Beth Peil) gives her a music box to remember her by. Her grandmother is leaving for Paris, but young Anastasia is not—not yet, anyway.

The most explicit the musical gets about the Romanov massacre and their fate is a flash of red outside the windows of what appears to be this last ball the Romanovs waltzed in—red for the Bolsheviks, red for blood, red for gunfire. It’s the classiest way a Royal Family could be dispatched on stage—by implication rather than rifle. Everyone just looks towards the windows a little alarmed, and that’s that. The Romanovs occasionally appear as ghosts throughout the show.

The next thing we know, we’re in St. Petersburg in 1927, now known as Leningrad, and the people are starving and nervous—but singing about it, of course—and there are spies and shifty soldiers and generals on every corner, including Ramin Karimloo’s Gleb, who apart from being drop-dead gorgeous is also keen to find whoever’s pretending to be the surviving Anastasia (the memory-loss addled ‘Anya’ who may just be her is played by the tomboyish, beady-eyed, and strong-voiced Christy Altomare).

And here come theatre buddies Dmitry (Derek Klena), just as hot as Gleb but dressed in bohemian tweeds, and Vlad (John Bolton), who’s an aristo manqué. Both of them want the reward the Dowager Empress is offering for Anastasia’s return, and so undertake a Henry Higgins-style behavioral makeover of Altomare’s Anastasia. But of course, they don’t need to, because she is, or believes herself to be, the real Anastasia! Their best song as a trio comes on a nerve-wracking train journey to Paris, as Gleb and the authorities try to catch them.

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Anastasia is both a chase and a quest, and—in its own very light way—an examination of grief and loss; and no-one embodies that better than Peil, who embodies all the strength and fragility of a Dowager Empress who has lost all she loves, and who dreams of finding Anastasia. Although they do not know it, Gleb and Anya are both linked by ghosts, pushing them to do what they do: Gleb’s father was supposedly one of the firing squad that killed Anastasia’s royal brethren. Finding her is personal—even though his anti-monarchist sentiment isn’t as strong as his fellow Bolsheviks’.

Gleb carries a gun with him, ready to kill her—but can he use it? With that plaintive inner conflict expressed with such a rich baritone, and those cheekbones?

Countess Lily (Caroline O’Connor), an old flame of Vlad’s and the Dowager Empress’s lady-in-waiting, provides a loopy and camp slice of comic relief to all the cat-and-mouse, swooning and fluttering her way through song and dance numbers, just as the attraction between her and Vlad takes on an absurd heat for them both.

The story, non-fatally, doesn’t have much story: there’s just a lot of dashing about, and singing about finding something, ghosts of the past, and identity and so forth. Difficult questions about Russia and its past and future are raised and soon forgotten, with shrugs of shoulders and sighs. The performances are shining: the love story between Dmitry and Anya is particularly sweetly downplayed.

The ending is both happy and sad, and keeps the mystery of Anastasia tantalizingly lost to the daintily falling snows of time—which is just as it should be, whatever the DNA evidence says.

Anastasia is at the Broadhurst Theatre, 235 West 44th Street, NYC. Book tickets here.