"Journey to the Past": Some Thoughts on 'Anastasia'

Liz Chirico

Anastasia the musical, is based on both the 1997 animated film by Fox and the 1956 version starring Yul Brynner and Ingrid Bergman. My normal M.O. is to read, listen and discover everything I can about the shows I’m seeing ahead of time. With this show, I read the opening night reviews and decided I’d rather be surprised than let myself become jaded from others viewpoints. I’m glad I did.

The show’s opening sequence takes you from 1907 Russia to 1927 Russia within a span of about 10 minutes (max) yet it covers and lays the groundwork for everything you need to know. The first of the beloved animated film songs is here, “Once Upon a December” sung by Anastasia’s grandmother to her (by her own admission) favorite grandchild. And the first of many moments where I found myself on the verge of tears. Being a family-friendly show, the execution of the Czar and his family is left to the imagination but the buildup of red flames against the palace windows, the sounds of marching boots and breaking glass all heighten the tension of those first scenes.

From here it very much follows the plot of the animated movie except for the swap of the Bolshevik General Gleb (played by the talented Ramin Karimloo) in place of Rasputin as the show’s antagonist. As someone who’s seen both movies several times, I believe Gleb has a bit of Yul Brynner’s character from the ’56 version in him, and that’s where things break down a bit. General Gleb walks the line between evil and sympathetic given his family background and his infatuation with Anya but I don’t believe it was a line that needed to be walked.

Dmitry is the love interest for Anya and I don’t believe we need a second- especially without a proper buildup. There’s one “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it” moment between Gleb and Anya well in the beginning of Act 1 where you think maybe there’s something. But not until he sings about his longing for her towards the end of Act 2 do you realize “Oh he likes her” and then you think “Wait- he likes her?” I believe had they focused on the General’s internal struggle regarding his family, that whole subplot would have been tighter.

One thing I appreciated is how the director assumed the viewer will know something about the Romanovs and doesn’t stop to explain every little detail. For example, Alexei falls in the opening scene stopping the dance in its tracks. IRL, Alexei was a hemophiliac and even a fall could result in his bleeding to death. That quick moment, that intake of collective breath by the family onstage, added an element of history to what could otherwise be a very fantastical tale.

It’s a crime there’s no Tony award for best projections. I guess they would fall under set design (maybe lighting?) and having seen pictures of the Great Comet’s sets they are gorgeous. But the projections used in addition to set pieces at Anastasia were nothing short of astonishing at times. There’s a train sequence and as the train moves, the images projected behind the train move seamlessly, really adding to the sense that these characters are escaping.

Composers Lynn Ahrens and Steven Flaherty composed additional songs for the show and they add much to the show and characters. The Dowager Empress has a beautifully touching number in Act 2 that lends her character much more weight than either movie. Even if I didn’t know the show’s composers I would have recognized them immediately. Chords in “My Petersburg” are strikingly similar to musical phrases from Ragtime; so much so that I sat straight up in my seat!

In short- don’t believe what the critics have said about Anastasia. If you like the ’97 movie, if you’re a fan of love stories, of historical mysteries, this show has something for you. Ultimately it’s a beautiful show with a brilliant message. “If you don’t believe in yourself, how can anyone else believe in you?”