As a child, I was always easily swept away by fairy tales. One good song from a movie or page from a book was enough for my imagination to transport me to far away lands ruled by handsome princes and full of castles and mysteries.
That hasn’t changed much.
At the end of March, I was lucky enough to see the second night of previews for Anastasia. With all its changes, I wasn’t sure it would evoke the same magical feeling from my childhood, but my concerns were unfounded. Over the past month, I’ve been unable to get the show out of my mind.
This musical is pure magic. Despite containing 19 new songs and significant plot changes, the story unfolds organically. I can’t recall a single moment that felt forced; one of the show’s greatest strengths is that everything flows beautifully from one moment to the next. The audience has no choice but to go on Anya’s journey with her, through moments that prompt unencumbered laughter and moments that have viewers on the edge of their seats.
Derek Klena brings to the stage a more human, less abrasive Dmitry—one who feels more approachable than the version we met in the movie, thanks to his boyish charm and carelessly flopped hair. We understand his motivations more clearly, with insight into his history and what makes him tick shown to us through “My Petersburg”, one of the show’s new numbers.
The show uses a separate actress to play Anastasia in the 1917 flashbacks, resisting the temptation to cast Christy Altomare’s Anya as a character in her own memories—or nightmares. This heightens the feeling that the audience isn’t supposed to be sure of Anya’s true identity until she herself is sure of it, a moment of revelation that comes during the number “In A Crowd of Thousands”. Another of the songs written specifically for the stage adaptation, the duet provides one of the most compelling moments in Anya and Dmitry’s journey, with the former discovering mid-playing pretend that she does, in fact, remember Dmitry, the boy who stood out in a crowd of thousands at a state parade.
Altomare brings layers to Anya that are both engaging and enchanting. The musical’s Anya didn’t grow up in an orphanage; rather, after a mysterious hospital stay, she learned to make her own way in the world for around a decade prior to meeting up with Dmitry and Vlad. If she seems more passive or frightened at times than the Anya we knew in the movie, it’s because she has more experience with the harsh reality of life in post-revolution Russia than that fresh-from-the-orphanage Anya, whose world was small.
The addition of Ramin Karimloo’s Gleb Vaganov as Anya’s antagonist—because I don’t feel Gleb can be labeled solely a villain here—in place of the dastardly Rasputin was a good choice on the part of the writers. He feels like a real threat, rather than a cartoon nemesis, someone who believes in the Russia that Lenin and the Bolsheviks are trying to create and who feels a duty to that Russia. We understand that he is fighting for what he was taught, and although the show doesn’t go so far as to tempt the audience to empathize with Gleb, his motivations are clear and understandable—and not just built around a virulent desire for revenge.
One of Anastasia’s brightest spots is Caroline O’Connor’s Countess Lily Malevsky-Malevitch, a disillusioned and deliciously bitter Russian émigré, and an utter show-stealer. With as thoroughly enchanted as I was by Anya and Dmitry, I wasn’t certain they could be topped, but O’Connor had me laughing until I was afraid I would fall out of my seat. She always had a wry remark at exactly the right moment, and the interplay between Countess Lily and John Bolton’s inimitable Vlad Popov was hilarious.
Though some diehard fans of the movie may not like the changes made to the show to bring the plot more in line with actual historic events, as a student of what actually happened to the Romanovs, seeing a storyline much more reminiscent of the tragedy that occurred play out in and amongst the familiar songs and characters of my childhood was a dream come true. One viewing simply wasn’t enough; I’m already looking for an opportunity to return.