It brought me genuine pain to have to misspell rumour just so that I could preserve the original text as it was written. It’s a daily struggle. Greetings, dear reader, and welcome back to
second another Musical Theatre Monday. #MusicalTheatreMonday. Totally a thing. I’m making it a thing. Watch. I use fetch on a daily basis, don’t test me.
Now, I must confess, I had very little initial intention of seeing Anastasia. Not because of the fact that I didn’t think I would enjoy it, but I was uncertain. I felt like I already knew the storyline, having seen the 1997 film, plus I hadn’t had an opportunity to listen to the soundtrack. Besides, my older brother went through a two-year phase of aggressively singing Once Upon a December on our piano when I was doing my GCSEs and those memories just don’t leave you. I mean, the kid can sing, but every day with the same song will make anybody have war flashbacks.
I digress. I had zero intention of seeing Anastasia, especially since the boyfriend and I had already booked to see three other shows while we were in New York. However, then the snow came.Oh yes. The snow came. Highlights below:
So there I was, dashing through Central Park in the snow and belting show tunes for my life, when we happened upon the idea of going to see a show. The weather was pants, and we felt like having somewhere warm to stay for a couple of hours. Now my darling partner, Ben, absolutely adores Anastasia. It’s one of those shows that he says that he can picture himself conducting and is really passionate about being involved with. And being the gracious and loving boyfriend that I am, I acquiesced. By which I mean that I secretly wanted to watch Frozen and we first asked the ticket booth as to whether there were Frozen tickets (because Caissie Levy, amirite) but then they didn’t have any, so we asked about Anastasia and they had third row tickets. So that was pretty awesome.
I am now alighting upon the actual point of this whole article, which is a review of the show. I was blown away. It was sensational.
For the uninitiated, Anastasia the musical is based upon the 1997 animated musical film Anastasia, as well as the 1956 film starring Ingrid Bergman. This is where lots of the alterations to the animated film come in, through the incorporation of plot lines present in this film. The basic premise of this film comes from the Anastasia imposters that popped up following the assassination of the Romanovs in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1918. Basically, the royal family of Russia were all shot, including the children. Anastasia was the youngest daughter, and until 2007, her body was undiscovered, which prompted many opportunists to pretend to be her in order to gain fame and fortune from the still-living Dowager Empress (Anastasia’s grandmother). The animated film features a young orphan girl, Anya, returning to the town of St. Petersburg, where she happens upon conmen Dimitri (now named Dmitry) and Vladimir (Vlad). Anya has ambitions to go to Paris because of an inscription upon a necklace she has and Dimitri and Vladimir, who are looking to cash in on the reward the Dowager Empress promises to lavish upon somebody who brings her Anastasia, are taken aback by Anya’s likeness to the lost princess. Anya is suffering from amnesia, but eventually she starts to believe that she really is the lost princess Anastasia, something which Dimitri too comes to believe when Anya starts to remember details of being rescue by a servant boy that allowed her to survive the revolution. Since Dimitri was this servant boy, he knows there is no other way for Anya to have known this.
Oh, and also, independently from this there is a sorcerer (say what now) called Rasputin, who has cursed the Romanov family and comes back from the dead with his talking bat (oh yes you heard me) to seek revenge on Anastasia and kill her like his curse was intended to do. Needless to say, the musical leaves this on the cutting room floor. It is also of very little significance to the main thrust of the storyline, and I am glad that Terrence McNally sagely realised this too.
Anastasia follows the similar story beats of the animated film. Anya, an amnesiac, runs into Dmitry and Vlad and they agree to take her to Paris. There is less of a secret or betrayal within the stage show, as Anya is always on board with being an imposter in this ruse. Indeed, unlike in the animated film, the audience is also left feeling unsure as to whether or not Anya is the real princess. Indeed, Anya is based off the most famous Anastasia impersonator – Anna Anderson – who actually suffered from amnesia and was coached into duping the Empress.
Amid this is the greater exploration of the post-revolution Russia. We are introduced to many people living hard lives out on the street, despite the promised greater prosperity that overthrowing the monarchy offered. Indeed, we even see one prominent Russian figure taken away and shot while trying to escape Russia just like Anya, Vlad and Dmitry are attempting to do. We also see the stark contrast between post-revolution Russia and the freedom that is seen within Paris. The two countries are complete opposites. While Russia shows poverty and people on the streets, Paris is the centre of opulence and revelry.
The musical also introduces us to the new “villain”, Gleb, a Bolshevik general whose father was charged with executing the Romanovs. When rumours start swirling that one of the Romanovs survived, this therefore reflects upon the character and memory of his father, as well as his own reputation and he therefore has a vested interest in correcting the mistake that his father made. This therefore prompts him to follow Anya, Vlad and Dmitry as they travel to Paris.
I like the fact that the musical hasn’t stuck to the animated film as bible, but has rather had the courage to produce the script that the animated film did not have the confidence to pull off. It trusted its audience with nuance and uncertainty. We don’t need to see Anastasia and her grandmother separated and then see the same girl year’s later. We can see the Romanovs murdered and then also still subscribe to a story that sees one of the Romanovs potentially escape. In fact, it makes it more compelling and engrossing. It makes the audience question everything they know about Anya as she develops. Is she indeed Anastasia as she claims, or is she just a very gifted actress and conwoman? In both the animated film and the show we are given hints that she is the real Anastasia – much more overtly in the film. We see this moment much later on in the musical, however, through the song In a Crowd of Thousands.
Accompanying the book is the score, written by Stephen Flaherty (Music) and Lynn Ahrens (Lyrics). While preserving some songs from the animated film in the form of Once Upon a December, Journey to the Past, You Can Learn to Do It and Paris Holds the Key (To Your Heart) amongst others, there are also some great additions. As well as some spell binding Anastasia solos (there are lots), we also see a great duet between Vlad and Lily called The Countess and the Common Man. It’s a great moment of levity in what is otherwise a fairly serious musical. We also see Dmitry’s resourcefulness and resilience explored within My Petersburg. Within a musical, you also get the luxury of exploring characters in a more three-dimensional way than you can see on film. The film’s villain, Rasputin, had a typical “villain song”, while the antagonist here, Gleb, has more nuance. His songs – all pretty much variants on his first song The Neva Flows – show his level of internal conflict between his own set of values, as well as the new regime that he has sworn himself too. He accepts that revolution is something that he finds necessary, yet still questions the means through which it was achieved. He questions whether he would have made different decisions were he to be in his father’s shoes. He is bound by a sense of duty, though he questions whether it is morally right to perform such acts, which is much more compelling than a two-dimensional “villain” character who wants to destroy Anastasia for little reason. We also get to see greater exploration of the Dowager Empress, who sings Close the Door in which we see her emotionally distance herself from the idea of Anastasia to prevent herself getting hurt. We see this from her in the film when she’s first introduced, but it’s lovely to see the moment that she actually decides it’s too much to hold onto the memory of her granddaughter, and instead elect to let her go. As well as being plausible character-wise, and some great acting moments, they are also sonically delightful. They absolutely soar orchestrally, and the vocals are sublime.
That leads me onto the performances themselves. The main cast was brilliant. John Bolton (Vlad) and Vicki Lewis (Countess Lily) were delightful comic relief and their duet in the second act was a great highlight of mine, and indeed Lily’s focal number The Land of Yesterday was also a brilliant reflection upon the aftermath of the revolution. Penny Fuller played the Dowager Empress with a warmth, yet steely resolve at distancing herself from her departed granddaughter. Cody Simpson played Dmitry admirably – it is after all a tricky part, though it seemed fairly obvious for the duration of the performance that he was playing a part. Some movements felt awkward and contrived and you could almost see him mentally working out what the next thing he had to do was. Vocally, he was pleasurable, but it’s unfortunate that he was up against such a formidable leading lady to play opposite.
Which leads me onto the goddess that is Christy Altomare. Jesus Christ, that woman has more emotion in her body than I have expressed in years. The way that she emotes with Anastasia, it’s like her entire insides collapse in on itself and you’re seeing a different universe. She drags you forcibly into the world that is being created. Every number that she is in, you can see the passion in her eyes. She believes and inhabits every single syllable and breath. Nothing is out of place. She is transported into a whole other world and plays it with such realism and nuance that I didn’t believe it was possible for Anastasia to possess. It was truly out of this world and spectacular, especially considering that she is three years into playing the role and it was on a random Wednesday night in the middle of cold season. Not only is she such a talented actress, clearly, but her vocals are phenomenal. Not a note was put wrong and it was delivered so confidently and forcibly that I will be thinking about that performance for years as an earmark for leading ladies everywhere. Spell binding, truly.
The staging was also so dynamic and engaging, accompanied by brilliant choreography. The set design features an arched wall with three turntables, which helps transitions between scenes be incredibly smooth. While the arched wall itself appears as the architecture of a palace, there are screens contained between the archways which allows this to become the portal for the entire musical. This also allows there to be three dimensions within these projected images, as the screens on the two sides are further forward than the large one at the back. This is why I indicated in my last review that screens were used very effectively here, as they served to enhance the scenes rather than box them in. When there is a scene set upon a Parisian bridge, it actually looks like the bridge is extending into the distance instead of being a flat projection. It is clearly a result of not only a well-designed set, but also of a very talented projection designer (Aaron Rhyne). These projections even extended to the auditorium, such as in Once Upon a December, where the ghosts that Anya sees in her mind extend and dance out into the audience in spectral form. It is truly a lesson in how modern technology can be used to enhance staging and sets instead of limiting them. Physical set pieces complemented the screens, and there was none of me hoping that nothing more would come sliding in from the side!
It’s such a shame that Anastasia has closed as of March 31st – especially since I really should have released this review sooner! All I can hope is that at some point it graces the West End stage.
Verdict: Christy Altomare is out of this world.
Stay, I pray you – for my highlights
- Christy Altomare, Christy Altomare, Christy Altomare. Shit. I hoped that it was one of those Bloody Mary type situations, where I’d say her name three times and she’d appear in my living room. Shame.
- My random amusement for the evening was the fact that the actress who played Pre-shooting Anastasia also played generic Russian peasant, and also a prostitute. She was pretty much front and centre in “A Rumor in St. Petersburg” and everyone’s like “hey I hear Anastasia is still alive”. And I was thinking, “Um yup. She’s right there.”. And then Anya appears and everyone’s like “Oh my god she looks just like the lost Princess” and I’m just thinking, “and what about the dead ringer prostitute?”. So the real question is, why did Anastasia escape and become a prostitute? I demand a sequel.
- I like how the plot is historically plausible, as the ending sees the Dowager Empress denounce Anya as an imposter, which indeed happened in history. It allows me to believe that Christy Altomare is, in fact, really Anastasia and just a very talented time traveller.
Directed by: Darko Tresnjak
Book by: Terrence McNally
Music by: Stephen Flaherty
Lyrics by: Lynn Ahrens
Choreographed by: Peggy Hickey
Starring: Christy Altomare, Cody Simpson, John Bolton, Penny Fuller, Constantine Germanacos & Vicki Lewis
Scenic Design: Alexander Dodge
Costume Design: Linda Cho
Lighting Design: Donald Holder
Projection Design: Aaron Rhyne
Sound Design: Peter Hylenski
Music Direction: Tom Murray