Review: 'Anastasia' at Hartford Stage

Chris Peterson

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On the title page of the program for the new musical, Anastasia, lies a small but important note. It states, "Inspired by the Twentieth Century Fox Motion Pictures". This is important because if you're walking into Hartford Stage assuming a direct adaptation of the 1997 animated film, with a few exceptions, you'd be wrong. But that's what also makes this production rather marvelous. 

Christy Altomare and company of Anastasia. Photo: Joan Marcus

Christy Altomare and company of Anastasia. Photo: Joan Marcus

Rather than go the Shrek/Beauty & the Beast route, with a live version of their animated origins the creative team behind Anastasia opted for a hybrid adaptation between the 1997 animated film and its 1956 Ingrid Bergman-starring counterpart. The show abandons many of the more animated/supernatural elements in favor of a more adult-oriented story line. While fans of "Bartok the Bat" might be a bit disappointed, the change mostly works. 

According to Hartford Stage, “Anastasia is the romantic and rousing story of one brave young woman attempting to discover the mystery of her past while finding a place for herself in the rapidly changing world of a new century. With a rich and sweeping musical score that evokes the opulence of Russian aristocracy and the energy of Paris street life, Anastasia is the ultimate journey of a woman caught between the pull of the past and the promise of the future.”

One of the improvements from its animated film is the treatment of its source material. While the animated film glanced over the reality of the historical truth, this production addresses it throughout in poignant fashion. 

As Anya, Christy Altomare is a star in the making. With pitch-perfect vocals but with an even more grounded and affecting acting performance, Ms. Altomare is everything you would want in this role. While she nails the iconic songs like the Act 1 finale "Journey to the Past", she's even more outstanding in the moments when she's not singing. 

While the character of Dmitry isn't given much more depth in this version than he had in the movie, he's certainly given more material, which Derek Klena takes full advantage. With strong vocals Mr. Klena's voice is perfectly matched with many of the new songs from Stephen Flaherty & Lynn Ahrens, which are, in some cases, just as good or better than the work they did on the animated film. 

Providing humorous support are John Bolton and Caroline O'Connor as Vlad and Lily respectively. Their number, "The Countless and the Common Man", is the show's comedic highlight. CT theatre favorite Mary Beth Peil is simply stunning as the Dowager Empress. Her scenes with Ms. Altomare are some of strongest in this production. 

Derek Klena and Christy Altomare. Photo: Joan Marcus

Derek Klena and Christy Altomare. Photo: Joan Marcus

The only character that I found to be problematic was a new character named, Gleb. While wonderfully performed by Manoel Felciano, the character serves as an unnecessary antagonist, as much as Rasputin was in the animated film. The character ended up becoming more of a hindrance to the overall production rather than aiding it, especially late in Act 2. 

By now it should be clear that Darko Tresnjak is one of the most creative names when it comes to staging his productions. We saw it with Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder and it's very clear in Anastasia. The entire production feels like a dance on the perfect tempo but slows down and speeds up when it needs to. 

This production is not only gorgeous to listen to but to look at as well. Alexander Dodge also lives up to his reputation as one of the best scenic designers today with his sleek and movable designs. The train car scene is a study in the combination of scenic design and video/projection, provided by Aaron Rhyne, who really deserves an award for his work on this show. Linda Cho's costume work is once again superb as is Donald Holder's lighting. 

Finally, I must commend Peggy Hickey on some of her best choreography yet.  While I found her work on last year's Kiss Me Kate to be particularly excellent, she goes even further here with everything from ballroom to ballet to the Charleston. 

All in all, Anastasia is sensational and given its expected move to Broadway next year, I'd say the future is looking bright for this fairy-tale musical about a young woman trying to find out who she really is.