#onceuponaroadtrip: Anastasia at Hartford Stage.

This is a post about something that made me happy this weekend.

If I’ve ever seen the animated Anastasia movie, I was so young that I have literally no recollection of it whatsoever. But after the cast and creative team were announced for the musical adaptation, which premiered this month at Hartford Stage, I was immediately excited.

I decided not to watch the movie before seeing the musical because I really strongly believe that adaptations, even of the most well loved and popular work, need to be able to stand on their own. I knew the basic story of the show, but really had no idea what to expect when we got to the theater.

On Saturday, my mom and I rented a car in Queens and road tripped up to Hartford for the day to see the show, and we arrived at the theatre tired and starving, so I bypassed the costume exhibit in the lobby to scarf down a soft pretzel from the bar before we took our seats.

As soon as I saw the show’s curtain, animated with projections of gently falling snow, I expected a show full of lush design and Anastasia didn’t disappoint in that regard. I loved the entire cast’s performances, but I ultimately left the theatre a little confused about the story that had happened on stage during the previous two-and-a-half hours. Regardless, I loved this show and genuinely enjoyed my afternoon at the theatre this Saturday.

Adapted by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty from the 1997 animated film, the show starts with an extended dance sequence, introducing Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna Romanov at age 6, along with the rest of the imperial family. As the Romanovs dance in their gala finery, Anastasia ages into a teenager and soon the family’s palace is bombed and stormed by revolutionaries who lead Anastasia and her family away to be executed. But, at the last second she turns back to rescue a music box given to her by her grandmother the Dowager Empress, who had moved away to Paris, and is separated from the rest of the Romanovs.

Fast forward ten years, and the people of St. Petersburg gossip that Anastasia may have survived. We meet Dmitry and Vlad, ready to do anything to get out of Russia, and Anya, a trembling and terrified street sweeper. Dmitry and Vlad are searching for an Anastasia impersonator, and Anya is searching for answers about her past.

The rest is the story you all likely know from the 1990s movie or the show’s Wikipedia page. Anya can’t remember her past; Vlad and Dmitry meet her and convince her to pretend to be Anastasia in order to get the trio out of Russia and collect the reward money offered by the Dowager Empress for Anastasia’s safe return; Anya starts remembering details that only the real Anastasia could know; they get to Paris by train and car and foot and meet the Dowager at the ballet; at first she rejects Anya then together they realize she truly is Anastasia; Anya leaves her grandmother to smooch Dmitry on a bridge; the end.

Insert subplots here: Gleb, a revolutionary police officer, meets Anya in St. Petersburg, discovers her secret, and is sent to Paris to execute her but can’t bring himself to go through with it. Vlad, a master con artist who as a young man had snuck himself in to the imperial court, reunites with his former fling Lily, the Dowager Empress’ lady in waiting, and they flirt and kiss and sing.

The performances given by this cast are exquisite. Christy Altomare, an old favorite of mine who starred as Wendla in the original tour of Spring Awakening, knocks her big songs out of the park, and effectively portrays Anya’s journey throughout the show. Derek Klena makes an excellent romantic lead as Dmitry, and I can see why the teens go crazy for him. John Bolton and Caroline O’Connor deliver a comedic showstopper perfectly in the middle of Act 2, and offer some serious humor and light to what could easily turn the corner into a very dark show. And of course, Mary Beth Pell as the Dowager Empress is excellent, maintaining a commanding presence even when she shows her vulnerable side. The show’s ensemble of dancers are top notch, and are shown off well by Peggy Hickley’s choreography.

Because the musical was written by the same creatives who wrote the music and lyrics for the movie, the new and old songs blend together seamlessly. I honestly couldn’t tell you which were new and which came from the movie, but they ranged beautifully from haunting lullabies to rousing dance numbers featuring the entire ensemble. I’m really hoping that the Broadway transfer of this production releases a cast album.

Despite the excellent performances and music, without the context of the movie, I was very confused by the show’s ending, which to me felt muddled and lacked clarity. I had to ask some internet friends to explain the plot to me because I was left with so many questions. Why did Anya work so hard to be reunited with her grandmother, only to immediately leave her to run away with Dmitry? Why were a life with her grandmother and a life with Dmitry at odds with each other? Was Anya even Anastasia, or was the secret she shared with the Dowager Empress in one of the show’s final book scenes simply that she was an impostor?

Fans of the movie and this adaptation told me that several lines and scenes featured in the movie that establish that Anya does not want to live as Anastasia, though it is her true identity, and that she must choose between a life with her grandmother and a life with Dmitry because he would be forced by custom to be subservient to her if she lived as Anastasia, were cut from the musical.

Even just slightly more time with Anya could clear up these details and make the show more enjoyable for those of us who aren’t familiar with the source material. So many things happen to Anya and I would love to see her have a little more agency in her story. I just want to get to know her a better and I wish the creative team had given her a more room to grow in her own story.

Plus, the show weirdly hints at Anya having PTSD (she absolutely freaks out when she hears something in the street that sound like gunshots, and has nightmares of her family’s execution) and having had to protect herself from sexual violence while walking across the country to find work, but never brings these points up again or really makes them relevant to Anya’s story. Developing these elements would give Anya more depth and frankly tell a more realistic story of the life of a young woman living in poverty on the streets after experiencing such deep trauma that she cannot remember the events of the majority of her lifetime.

For a title character, I felt like I didn’t know Anya/Anastasia very well by the end of the show. She completely disappears for at least 20 minutes of Act 2, while we are treated to a delightful yet too long dance sequence on the streets of Paris, another in a Russian ex-pat bar that we never return to later in the show, and Vlad and Lily’s comedic duet. I think that it would serve the show well to trim these numbers down, as well as the subplot featuring Gleb the police officer, so as to focus the show more squarely on its main character. I think that these flaws in the show’s book are absolutely fixable, and really only need minor tweaking to make the story read more clearly.

Even though I was confused by parts of the plot I absolutely loved the show’s design. Relying mostly on projections and video screens rather than traditional backdrops and scenery, the Anastasia team was able to create super layered and beautiful scenic design throughout the show. The plaza in St. Petersburg, the orchard outside of Paris, and the fields passing by while the show’s trio rides through the countryside on a train were particularly striking. The only time I didn’t like the projections was when they were used more as animation than scenery, like when they showed explosions and blood splatters during the execution scene at the top of Act 1. When the projections were used this way they felt a little flat, especially compared to the lush layers of some of the other projections in the show.

The costumes were equally as beautiful as the best of the projections, and I was really glad we took a few minutes at intermission to check out the display the theater put together featuring the creative process of Anastasia’s costume design team. The beautiful gowns of the high society Russian ex-pats of Paris in Act 2 really stand out, and I particularly loved the dress that Anastasia wears to the ballet when she first meets the Dowager Empress (which, of course, does not appear in any of the show’s press photos).

I truly enjoyed this show, and I can’t wait to see it again (and see what changes have been made) when it hits Broadway. This side trip was totally worth the weird drive between NYC and Hartford, and giving up a Saturday in Manhattan. Anastasia closes next Sunday, so if you’re in the area, grab the chance to see it while you can. And, if you want to check out my mom’s and my in depth documentation of our trip (gas stations! rain! playbills!), check out our hashtag #onceuponaroadtrip on Twitter.


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