A Second Opinion Review: 'Anastasia' at Hartford Stage

Nancy Sasso Janis

  • OnStage Connecituct Critic

Hartford, CT - ‘Anastasia’ is a brand new musical that is making its world premiere at CT’s Hartford Stage. It opened on May 21 and runs through June 19 and I was grateful to attend the final press night last Thursday. Since the show officially opened on May 27, I had tried mightily to avoid reading any reviews of the preview performances and it had not been easy. Headlines revealed that critics were loving it and friends who saw it concurred wholeheartedly, but I would not let anyone tell me anything about it. 

I knew that the musical was inspired by a Twentieth Century Fox motion picture that I have never watched. The fact that it was written by Terrence McNally, with music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, the team that brought ‘Ragtime,’ ‘Seussical,’ and ‘Once on This Island’ to the stage, told me that it would have wonderful music. Now I have learned that the composer and lyricist were also nominated for two Academy Awards for the score of the animated feature ‘Anastasia.’ Both the film and the new musical were inspired by the real life of Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanov and the enduring mystery of her true identity. 

Hartford Stage Artistic Director Darko Tresnjak is the Tony Award winner for Best Direction of a Musical for ‘A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.’ He likens this piece to Shakespeare’s late romances that tell the tales of “families torn asunder, of long and perilous voyages, and of improbable yet heartbreaking reunions...and at or near the center of each on is a mysterious and determined young woman.” He directs the musical with a keen eye, walking the fine line between competing with a film version and his vision. I suspect that his vision will please fans of the movie as well as those of us that simply come to enjoy the musical version as I did. 

This sweeping musical begins in the twilight of the Russian Empire and moves to 1920’s Paris. In a nutshell, it follows a brave young woman called Anya (played to perfection by Christy Altomare) as she attempts to discover the mystery of her past while trying to find where she belongs in the rapidly changing world of the new century; that she also finds love is an added bonus. The first act had some parts that actually reminded me of ‘Ragtime.’ The line that announces the arrival of our heroine at a Russian official’s office “She’s here” echoed the line referring to ‘Ragtime’s’ Younger Brother’s arrival, “He’s here.” Russian refugees lined up at a train station for “Stay, I Pray You” made me think of  “Till We Reach That Day.” It made this show even more endearing somehow, as did the song “Once Upon a December” woven into both acts. 

 Photo: Joan Marcus

Photo: Joan Marcus

As soon as Ms. Altomare sang her first song entitled “In My Dreams,” she had my attention. The young actress, who appeared in ‘Mamma Mia’ on Broadway, brings a wonderful spark to the title role; combined with her strong singing voice and superb acting, she brings Anya to life perfectly. She seemed overcome with emotion at her standing ovation at the curtain call. Just as strong was Derek Klena (‘The Bridges of Madison County’ and ‘Wicked’ on Broadway) as Dmitry, her romantic lead. With charm to spare, the actor is perfectly cast as a young man with a plan to escape Russia. 

Mary Beth Peil is a standout in the role of the Dowager Empress, who survives the attack on the royal family because she is in Paris. With many Broadway roles to her credit, the actress brought a lovely voice and regal beauty to the aging royal grandmother. 

Broadway actor John Bolton nailed the humor in the role of Vlad Popov and although his motives are less than honorable, I found it hard not to like his character. Caroline O’Connor (who played Velma Kelly in ‘Chicago’ on Broadway) almost stole the show in the second act as the Countess Lily Malevsky-Malevitch, a kind of lady in waiting to the Dowager. Her scenes with her former lover Vlad were priceless.

Manoel Felciano, a Tony nominee for ‘Sweeney Todd,’ played the conflicted Russian official Gleb. Lauren Blackman wore the best costume of the show as the Tsarina Alexandra and also danced as Isadora Duncan. Constantine Germanacos (‘Evita’ on Broadway) played both the Tsar Nicholas II and Count Ipolitov. The young and very cute Riley Briggs (Beth in ‘A Wonderful Life’ at Goodspeed) and Nicole Scimeca share the role of the six-year-old Anastasia and Ms. Scimeca played Prince Alexei. 

The ensemble includes James Brown III (‘The Wiz Live! And ‘Wicked,’’) Maxwell Carmel (‘Only Anne’ at Goodspeed,), Max Clayton (‘Gigi’ on Broadway,), Janet Dickinson (‘Bullets Over Broadway,’) Rayanne Gonzales (‘Hands on a Hardbody,’)  Ken Krugman (‘The Visit,’) Kevin Ligon (‘On the Twentieth Century,’)  Katherine McLellan (BFA from The Hartt School,) Alida Michal (‘Wonderful Town’), Shina Ann Morris (‘Cinderella,’) Kevin Munhall (‘Anything Goes’ on Broadway,) Johnny Stellard (‘Evita,’) and Samantha Sturm (‘Matilda’ on Broadway.’) These supporting cast members played the doomed members of the royal family and their suitors, Swan Lake ballet dancers (beautifully,) Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, comrades, and more. 

The set with many impressive projections, turntables and changes was a spectacle in itself, and I loved the falling snow effect. Show Motion, Inc. in Milford, CT built, painted and electrified the scenic elements with panache. The lighting designed by Donald Holder only improved the visuals. The costumes designed by Linda Cho made the show look both authentic and quite stunning at times. I thought that some of the wigs could have been a little better, but perhaps they were accurate to the film. The choreography of Peggy Hickey was a joy to watch. 

The song “Journey to the Past,” which was nominated for the Academy Award, is included here along with five others from the film, and 16 new songs are premiered as well. The large orchestra in the pit sounded glorious under the beautiful direction of Thomas Murray; Tom Murray served as Music Director. Associate Artistic Director at Hartford Stage Elizabeth Williamson was the Dramaturg. 

I loved every minute of this production and would gladly see it again. Tickets are hard to come by but would be well-worth the effort. What an honor to experience this magical show here in CT before it hopefully heads to Broadway.