Christy Altomare and company of Anastasia. Photo Courtesy of Joan Marcus.
When the long-anticipated Broadway adaptation of the cartoon classic Anastasia (1997) debuted under the bright lights of the Broadhurst Theatre, the audience was tightly packed and diverse: thick Eastern European accents were offset by the squeals of American women in their teens and early 20s, eagerly anticipating their favorite story brought to life. Indeed, all of the audience members were likely intimately familiar with some form of the story behind Anastasia— whether the “true” history of the ill-fated Tsarevna Anastasia Nikolaevna, allegedly murdered by the Cheka (Bolshevik secret police) in 1918, or the whimsical tale of 20th Century Fox’s “Anastasia Romanov(a),” with its talking bat and mad villain Rasputin hunting the Romanov family to near-extinction, with its train crashes and hexes and wild run to the streets of Paris— but few could predict what would happen when the lights grew dim and these two stories intersected in a new translation of the classic tale.
With the introduction of Anastasia to the stage, Rasputin gave way to the Russian Revolution of 1917 (specifically the February Revolution and the fall of Winter Palace) and the rising Russian Communist movement; the new adaptation brought new “villains” to the story. But as Anastasia grew closer to real life, so did its conflict. Instead of employing the black and white morality shown in the movie, the Broadway play Anastasia thoroughly developed its villains and their drives. This idea of gray-moral conflict was embodied by the well-rounded character development of the main antagonist Gleb (Ramin Karimloo), who faced a moral dilemma threatening his identity even as Anastasia came to recognize her own.
Despite these major changes to the plot, the majority of the characters and music that made Anastasia the movie a success remained in the play. In fact, not only were iconic songs like “Learn to Do It,” “Journey to the Past,” and “Once Upon a December” beautifully rearticulated, but also the original songs like “My Petersburg” performed by Dmitry (Derek Klena) and “Stay, I Pray You,” which featured nearly the entire cast, were instrumental in exposing the raw nerve endings of a country torn apart by revolution and giving new depth to the characters.
“Stay, I Pray You” was a particularly timely addition for today’s audiences, given its thematic focus on the struggles of leaving a war-torn country to seek refuge away from one’s home. Dmitry and Anya (Anastasia) may have been full of hope, but they, along with the refugees they accompanied, still called:
Stay, I pray you.
Let me have a moment,
Let me say goodbye;
Harsh and sweet
And bitter to leave it all,
I’ll bless my homeland
Till I die.
The eyes of the cast at this point twinkled with tears in the bright stage lights. The audience was not immune from the sudden onset of emotions.
Anastasia is inherently self-aware: a nostalgic story centered around nostalgia; a story about respecting the past while growing to make new decisions respecting its past and growing into new decisions. And for the audience members not satisfied by this balance of whimsy and historical realism, a near-topless Derek Klena and a bejeweled Tsarina, stunning graphics that expanded the small stage into a platform crossing international boundaries and spectacular Russian choreography filling the stage in thrusting limbs and fluttering skirts— these seemed to have been enough of a distraction from defamiliarizing plot elements.
In the course of the night, very few technical or performative issues arose. The opening of the first scene, featuring a young Anastasia and her Grandmother the Grand Duchess as the Grand Duchess says goodbye before departing to Paris, was a bit choppy, seeming to be a near-direct quotation of the movie lacking the vivid character of the rest of the play, and Ramin Karimloo (Gleb) sounded slightly nervous at the play’s start; that is, Karimloo’s first two vocal performances were a bit more breathless than breathtaking. However, these minor issues were quickly eclipsed by the interactions between the young Anastasia and her family, the collapse of the Grand Duchess at the news of their deaths (a tear-jerking performance), and Karimloo’s heart-stopping second reprise of “A Simple Thing,” in which his voice persisted where many other actors would have failed.
Altogether, Anastasia overshot all expectations of success and managed a seemingly impossible feat with its reconciliation of history with fantasy. Its near-perfect opening performances can only improve as the actors and actresses continue to bring the streets of Leningrad (ne Saint Petersburg) to our very own West 44th Street, between 7th and 8th Aves.