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It’s a journey to the past in the newest musical to open on Broadway. Anastasia, based on the 1997 animated film from Fox, has been reimagined onstage. It’s the story of Anya, an orphan in 1920s St. Petersburg yearning to discover her lost family. She encounters two men—ex-aristocrat Vlad and the strapping conman Dmitri—who convince her she just might be Anastasia, the Romanov duchess rumored to have survived the Russian Revolution. Together, they flee to Paris, where they hope to present Anya to the exiled Dowager Empress, Anastasia’s grandmother, who happens to be offering a reward to anyone who finds her granddaughter.
How does the musical Anastasia on Broadway compare to the 1997 film? The Knickerbocker team went to a preview performance to find out, and we weren’t disappointed. Almost all of our favorite aspects of the cartoon made it into the musical, and there’s been significant restructuring of the plot. Here’s what we loved about Anastasia on Broadway.
The wizard Rasputin and his lackey, an inane talking bat, are gone, but not missed in the new musical. Removing the fantastical aspect of plot line makes Anastasia on Broadway a much more mature story than the film. Conflict now comes in the form of Gleb, a Leninist officer tasked with preventing any “Anastasias” to publicly reappear. His character allows the musical to take a (slightly) more critical look at the Romanovs’ troubled rule. And while audiences may miss Rasputin’s song “In the Dark of the Night,” they likely won’t miss him. The absence of such a ridiculous villain vastly improves the overall plot. So too does the addition of Gleb’s character. Not a villain, more of an antihero, he is struggling with his own demons in the new Russia.
The musical team behind Tony-winning Ragtime wrote the 1997 music, and they joined forces again for the musical’s new songs. Favorites include Anya’s yearning ballad “In My Dreams,” Dmitri’s “My Petersburg,” and their lovely duet “In a Crowd of Thousands.” But the showstopper is the hilarious “Land of Yesterday.” Countess Lily, the Dowager Empress’s lady in waiting takes center stage for this song. While Anya’s trying to discover her past, the countess and her fellow exiled Russian nobles, are stuck in it.
“Journey to the Past,” “Once Upon a December,” and “A Rumor in St. Petersburg”…the hits from 1997 are still here, albeit reordered and rejiggered to match the new plotlines. Even Rasputin’s “In the Dark of the Night” makes a cameo appearance, popping up as the melody in a new song.
Apparently Meg Ryan and John Cusack weren’t available. Not a problem. Christy Altomare and Derek Klena excel as Anya and Dmitri, with soaring, beautiful voices and expressive faces. Altomare’s been on Broadway as Sophie in Mamma Mia, and you’ve maybe seen Derek in Wicked or Bridges of Madison County. Other Broadway veterans in the cast include the luminous Mary Beth Peil as the Dowager Empress, John Bolton as Vlad, and Caroline O’Conner—previously Velma in Chicago alongside Billy Zane, and Roxanne in the film Moulin Rouge next to Nicole Kidman—as Countess Lily.
When the curtain lifted, revealing a computerized backdrop with snowflakes falling outside the Romanov’s St. Petersburg palace, we admittedly became nervous. Can a digital backdrop ever not come off as tacky? In Anastasia on Broadway, the answer is a resounding yes. Train rides, winter weather, and a ride up to the top of the Eiffel Tower were dynamic, surprisingly realistic and—even more surprisingly—beautiful.