“Anastasia”: A Stunning Story of Self-Discovery

“Anastasia” opens on a familiar, intimate scene. A young girl with hairbows and a delicate white nightgown sits with her grandmother, who is leaving for Paris. Her grandmother lovingly offers the girl a music box to remember her by. The gentle and much-loved melody “Once Upon A December,” begins to play as snow falls gently around them, sweeping viewers up in a stunning adventure of love, mystery, and self-discovery.

The adventure follows Anya, a young woman scraping by in revolutionist Russia, who has no memory of the past and is anxious to learn who she is. Anya is convinced by two con men, Dmitry and Vlad, that she is the lost Romanov princess Anastasia because, unknown to her, they need someone to play the part in order to collect a generous reward from Anastasia’s desolate grandmother, the Empress Dowager of France.

Gleb, a communist officer loyal to the new regime, befriends and cares for Anya while determined to ensure that none of the Romanovs remain alive. Though based off of the 1956 and 1997 films about the princess Anastasia, “Anastasia” the musical is a grown-up, grittier version, combining old favorites and striking new songs to deliver a poignant performance.   

One of the most memorable new additions is a sweetly intimate duet between Anya (Christy Altomare) and Dmitry (Derek Klena) called “In A Crowd Of Thousands.” As Dmitry and Anya attempt to recreate their shared past, the chemistry between them becomes clear as the song turns unexpectedly emotional.

The reprise of the classic “Journey to the Past,” nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1998, was well done. With her killer vocals, Altomare delivers on the hopeful, passionate solo about Anya’s dreams for the future, serving as a striking Act One Finale.

The cast of “Anastasia” skillfully depicts engaging characters. Throughout the show, Altomare shines as a frightened but resilient Anya. Her strength lies in portraying Anya as a truly multi-dimensional heroine who fights off a group of drunk men in one scene and dreams of a family in the next. Dmitry is very much her equal—Klena skillfully showcases a gentle side to the cocky and cynical Dmitry.

Ramin Karimloo aptly plays Gleb, the sympathetic villain, humanizing him through Gleb’s internal conflict. Gleb, ordered to finish what his father started and kill the royal family, grapples with his legacy, his orders, and his burgeoning love for Anya. Through emotional solos such as “The Neva Flows,” Karimloo adds incredible depth to the loyal but kind communist officer.

John Bolton’s Vlad and Caroline O’Connor’s Lily, the Dowager Empress’s bright and dramatic lady-in-waiting, add some much needed lightness to the story. Their scandalous but sweet affair is full of funny moments—Vlad does squats while they kiss and their secret signal is obvious. Mary Beth Peil is perfect as the long-suffering Empress Dowager. In a setting both magical and undeniably real, the characters are genuine and imperfectly human.

Visual effects bring Anya’s world to life. A particularly striking moment is the projection of enormous ghost-like figures that twirl across the stage during Anya’s memories of a grand ball, creating a faraway, dream-like feel. Photo-realistic backgrounds pull viewers into the scene during Dmitry’s solo “My Petersburg,” in which he fondly reminisces growing up on the streets. A stunning, sunset-lit St. Petersburg rises gloriously above him and Anya.

The costumes, done by Linda Cho, tiptoe along the delicate line between historical and modern and reveal the characters’ transformations, particularly Anya’s, without the need for a single word. Dressed initially in a burlap sack-like jacket and a dowdy skirt, Anya is hard to imagine as more than the clumsy, frightened streetsweeper. The moment Anya appears in a stunning, floor-length, deep blue ball gown and white opera gloves, there is something different about her—she is now regal and elegant, perhaps even a princess.

Though “Anastasia” closely mirrors the 1997 animation, director Darko Tresnjak has strayed from the fantastical plot of the film to convey a darker, more realistic story. He plays with the time period and setting, revolutionist Russia, to add the underlying sinister threat of the Communist regime and the realities of those who live under it.

Conflicted communist leader Gleb is a new invention, replacing the green, undead wizard Rasputin and his swarm of demons chasing Anya. The complexity of Gleb’s character and loyalties intensify the conflict, abandoning simple concepts of good and bad for murkier waters. Subtle moments such as a gunshot quickly brushed off a truck and song lyrics such as “We stand behind our leaders/We stand in line for bread” quietly reveal the unpleasant truths of Communist Russia.

“Anastasia” is magical without containing any magic, setting the universal question: “Who am I?” against a dark historical backdrop. In Anya’s journey, we can see ourselves and learn to not be afraid to figure out who we are.

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