Review: 'Anastasia' at Hartford Stage

Chris Peterson

  • OnStage Editor-in-Chief
  • Twitter: @CMPeterson81

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.

Review ~ "Fun Home" at Circle in the Square

Tara Kennedy

Welcome to Fun Home on Broadway. This is a brilliant musical production about self-discovery, elation, anguish, and defeat. It is easily one of the best shows on Broadway right now.

The show is based on the graphic novel of the same name by Alison Bechdel, which is an autobiography of her life. It begins with her coming of age in rural Western Pennsylvania, leading into her college experiences and her identity as a lesbian. The theme throughout the show is her relationship with her father, who is a closeted homosexual. Alison narrates her own story, carrying a pad as she draws out her memories that are played out before her.  

Photo by Joan Marcus

Photo by Joan Marcus

Her father, Bruce Bechdel (Michael Cerveris), is an English teacher and a funeral director, with a penchant for historic restoration projects. The Bechdel home is a museum filled with Hepplewhite chairs and Tiffany lamps.  Alison’s mother, Helen (Judy Kuhn), is an actor, wife, and mother, trying to keep the museum in order and her husband’s homosexual encounters under the Persian rug. 

Alison is depicted in the show at three ages: Small (eight-year-old) Alison (Sydney Lucas), Middle (college-age) Alison (Emily Skeggs), and 43-year-old Alison (Beth Malone). The three actors portray Alison at these critical ages with depth and truth. Ms. Lucas shines in “Ring of Keys” where she relays her awareness that she is attracted to a woman: it is poignant, touching, and funny all at the same time. It is an astounding feat for such a young actor. Ms. Skeggs similarly delights in her number, “Changing My Major,” which is a declaration of delight toward her first college lover, Joan (played with cool confidence by Roberta Colindrez).  Medium Alison’s revelation is sweet and moving, bubbling over with that rush of first love.

Overall, Ms. Malone gives a marvelous performance as adult Alison. Her urgent, emotionally overwhelming song, “Telephone Wire” is her highlight: she and her father take a drive the day before she goes back to college from holiday break. It’s her first visit since coming out to her parents. During the ride, Alison tries to connect with her father, getting him to open up to her about being gay. She is singing as if shaking him by the shoulders; her powerful singing aches for acknowledgement from her father, even though she knows he will commit suicide a few weeks later. 

Michael Cerveris is incredible as Bruce Bechdel, who is balancing being a father to his three children in between his collapsing marriage and homosexual affairs with young men. Having seen Mr. Cerveris in a number of other productions, I expected a stellar performance and got one. His inner struggle parallels his constant fixer-upper projects; he strives to create the perfect showpiece home. He examines his last renovation project, a house that Bruce himself said was a goner, as he sings the song, “Edges of the World.” This last project – his own realization that he can’t be the person who he really is and longs to be– ultimately kills him. 

Initially, I wondered why Judy Kuhn agreed to play the role of Helen, Bruce’s put-upon, unhappy wife, since it hardly seemed to highlight Ms. Kuhn’s amazing vocal and acting talents (I saw her as Cosette in the original cast of Les Misérables). Then she sang “Days and Days.” Ms. Kuhn sang as if Helen’s emotional bottle had been uncorked: an outpouring of heart wrenching regret with a final message to her daughter: “I didn’t raise you to give away your days like me.” Her performance is a triumph. 

And what would a show called Fun Home be without any fun? The musical number, “Come to the Fun Home,” brings a Jackson 5-esque theme song, performed by the three Bechdel children as an advertisement for their family’s funeral home. It’s light-hearted and provides featured moments for Alison’s two brothers, Christian (Oscar Williams) and John (Zell Steele Morrow). 

This musical is innovative yet universal in its subject matter. Every family may not be able to relate to closeted relatives, but all families identify with sweeping secrets under the rug; like Helen declares, “It’s like chaos never happens if it’s never seen.” This is a gem of a show that needs to be seen and heard. 

Opens April 19, 2015. Music by Jeanine Tesori (Caroline, or Change, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Violet). Book and Lyrics by Lisa Kron (Well, In the Wake). Directed by Sam Gold (The Real Thing, The Realistic Joneses). 

“Finding Neverland” Review at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre

David Roberts and Joseph Verlezza

“That isn’t me. (at J. M. Barrie) That’s him. He’s Peter Pan. (Barrie – perhaps only realizing this for the first time, too) He just has my name. And it’s the best present any boy was ever given, anywhere in the world.” (Peter Llewelyn Davies in “Finding Neverland”)

For those who have never grown up and still indulge in imaginative child’s play, conjuring up backyard scenes with swashbuckling  pirates or configuring protective forts from blankets and sofa cushions to ward off the enemies - perhaps while babysitting - should quickly head to the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre where you will certainly recognize a character who might have encouraged such whimsical behavior. “Finding Neverland” the new musical based on the motion picture of the same name and the play “The Man Who Was Peter Pan” is a complicated, interesting, and magical theatrical journey. At a stop somewhere between Alice’s Wonderland and Dorothy’s Oz is where we find Peter’s Neverland. It is a place where you go to escape social pressure, expectations and fears, to learn about hope and courage, but more important a place to heal. The moment you hear the soothing vocal of the incredible Matthew Morrison deliver the intriguing lyrics of the opening number “If the World Turned Upside Down” you connect, understand and start emotional gears that transport you into the heart of J.M. Barrie. So hold on tight, something wonderful is about to take flight.

Finding Neverland (c)Carol Rosegg    (L-R) Sawyer Nunes, Alex Dreier, Laura Michelle Kelly, Aidan Gemme, Matthew Morrison, Christopher Paul Richards

Finding Neverland (c)Carol Rosegg

(L-R) Sawyer Nunes, Alex Dreier, Laura Michelle Kelly, Aidan Gemme, Matthew Morrison, Christopher Paul Richards

"Finding Neverland" is the second to none prequel to the story of Peter Pan written to date. The new musical gives the definitive motivation for J. M. Barrie’s writing of “Peter Pan” and authentic connections between the characters in “Peter Pan” and the significant relationships in J. M. Barrie’s life. It is a Broadway musical with heart, soul, and sensibility: the remarkable musical not only entertains, it raises significant and enduring questions about finding ones voice and finding places of ultimate healing in unexpected places.

In “Finding Neverland” J. M. Barrie’s (Matthew Morrison) newest play “The Wedding Guest” is a flop and producer Charles Frohman (Kelsey Grammer) closes the show with the assurance his playwright prodigy is diligently working on a new play with fresh ideas and a better hope for audience approval. But Barrie’s life is on a downturn: he has no new ideas; his marriage to Mary Barrie (Teal Wicks) is lifeless and spiritless; and his creative imagination has run dry. Clearly “The World Is Upside Down” and the catalyst for this transformation is the family he meets in Kensington Gardens where he goes daily hoping to find inspiration. Barrie knows he has a unique voice and that he has the ability to “fill all the spaces with imaginary places” (from “Believe,” Act I). It is in his relationship with Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Laura Michelle Kelly) and her four boys - played with exquisite charm by Aidan Gemme (Peter), Christopher Paul Richards (Jack), Sawyer Nunes (George), and Alex Dreier (Michael) - that Barrie discovers “We’re all Made of Stars” and celebrates moments when “We Own the Night.”

There is an important story here that perhaps is exactly what theater audiences need today in our sterile, rule laden, isolated, technical society. It does not take much to ignite your imagination, travel to unforgettable places and face unforeseen dangers that entertain and release everyday anxieties without the help of the latest mobile device, even if only for a moment. If you have lost that ability, do not despair, start searching and you might just find it in “Finding Neverland.”

Finding Neverland (c)Carol Rosegg    Matthew Morrison (center) and Kelsey Grammer (Captain Hook, front right) with the ensemble of Finding Neverland

Finding Neverland (c)Carol Rosegg

Matthew Morrison (center) and Kelsey Grammer (Captain Hook, front right) with the ensemble of Finding Neverland

By no means is this a perfect musical but it is inventive, entertaining and at times it does manage to break down some traditional barriers that often obstruct creativity. The music and lyric by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy are both pleasant and interesting but more so lead the path to the incomparable   choreography of Mia Michaels. Ms. Michaels’ signature of “movement with meaning” infuses character and emotion into every choreographed musical number and it does not stop there. Quirky, articulated gestures placed on tag lines, entrances and exits clearly punctuate the present behavior. Matthew Morrison is captivating as he consistently unearths his child within and serves up a remarkable vocal performance exhibiting a definable passion. Kelsey Grammer as the petulant producer Charles Frohman is delightful as he contributes his distinctive comic flair and equally adept when substituting his cane for a “Hook.” Laura Michelle Kelly captures the spirit of Sylvia Llewelyn Davies with immaculate vocals and a character that manages to escape pedestrian and maudlin behavior. Carolee Carmello gives a solid, strong, honest, practical portrayal of Mrs. Du Maurier only teasing us with her underused vocal ability.

Ultimately, "Finding Neverland" is about knowing when to tear down and when to build up, when to risk taking ones feel off the ground and when to be grounded. It is about the important choices we make when creating our imaginary places. J. M. Barrie’s ‘Neverland’ is an engaging exploration of humankind’s eternal quest to create and maintain “places” where age, death, disappointment and despair are never welcomed guests.

FINDING NEVERLAND

Directed by Diane Paulus, with music and lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, book by James Graham, and choreography by Mia Michaels. The production features scenic design by Scott Pask, lighting design by Kenneth Posner, costume design by Suttirat Larlarb, sound design by Jonathan Deans, and the casting is by Telsey + Company. “Finding Neverland” is produced by Weinstein Live Entertainment, The Madison Square Garden Company, Len Blavatnik, Ron Burkle, Radenko Milakovic and Bryan Cranston in association with Jason Blum, Broadway Across America, Stephen Bronfman, Rodgin Cohen, Michael Cohl, Jean Doumanian, Chad Dubea, Rick Gerson, Jeremiah J. Harris, Sh. Mohammed Y. El Khereiji, Terry Allen Kramer, Howard Milstein, Dalip Pathak, Steve Rattner, Jimmy Sommers, Peter Stavola, Marvin Peart, and The American Repertory Theater. The production is Executive Produced by Alecia Parker, Barry Weissler and Victoria Parker. “Finding Neverland” runs at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater (205 West 46th Street) on the following schedule: Tuesday at 7:30pm, Wednesday at 2pm & 7:30pm, Thursday at 7:30pm, Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm & 8pm, Sunday at 3pm. Please note, there will only be an additional performance on April 19 at 7:30pm. Tickets can be arranged online at www.FindingNeverlandTheMusical.com, by calling Ticketmaster at (877) 250-2929 or in person at the Lunt-Fontanne box office, located at 205 West 46th Street, between Broadway and 8th Avenues. For more information, please visit www.FindingNeverlandTheMusical.com.

WITH: A cast led by Matthew Morrison, Kelsey Grammer, Laura Michelle Kelly and Carolee Carmello, with Teal Wicks, Alex Dreier, Aidan Gemme, Jackson Demott Hill, Noah Hinsdale, Sawyer Nunes, Christopher Paul Richards, Hayden Signoretti with Courtney Balan, Dana Costello, Colin Cunliffe, Rory Donovan, Chris Dwan, Kevin Kern, Josh Lamon, Melanie Moore, Mary Page Nance, Fred Odgaard, Emma Pfaeffle, Jonathan Ritter, Tyley Ross, Julius Anthony Rubio, Paul Slade Smith, Ron Todorowski, Jaime Verazin and Jessica Vos