When a new musical comes along as stunning and sumptuous as “Anastasia” (which is currently playing at Hartford Stage) it is hard to be objective. With a score by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty and a book by Terrence McNally, just about everything about this show works extraordinarily well and the power and beauty of this musical only grows stronger as the show goes on. It is hard to tell who the chief hero is in this magical refashioning of the animated film of “Anastasia,” but a good deal of the credit must go to both the creators of the show and the inspired direction of Darko Tresnjak. Throw in a wonderful cast and one of the most breathtaking physical productions I have ever seen and you definitely have a winner of a show. In fact, “Anastasia,” at Hartford Stage is even more than that: it is a show that has Broadway written all over it and it is one of the best new musicals I have seen in years.
I will confess that I have an enormous fondness for lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty, having seen nearly all of their New York musicals, from “Once on This Island” in 1990 to “Rocky” in 2014. But this team of songwriters is most definitely not resting on their laurels: their score for “Anastasia” is often beautiful, with literate lyrics by Ahrens and lush melodies by Flaherty. This composing team has also written, to great advantage, with book writer Terrence McNally in the past—with their glorious original production of “Ragtime” being the shining example—and these artists seem to have struck gold again in “Anastasia.” This is truly one show where all the elements of creating a musical come to together superbly, with enormously rewarding results.
The cast of “Anastasia” is also pretty much ideal, right down to the smallest parts. In supporting roles, the regal Mary Beth Peil is perfect as the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, managing to be both imposing and extremely touching. Caroline O’Connor—who was my favorite of all the Velma Kelly’s I saw in the Broadway revival of “Chicago”—is a zesty and appealing scene-stealer in the role of Countess Lily, the Dowager Empress’ most trusted confidante. John Bolton shines, as well, as one of the schemers who tries to pass a girl off as the granddaughter of the Dowager Empress, in order to get a huge reward. Manoel Felciano adds tension and an excellent singing voice to his sinister character of Gleb. And, in the role of Dmitry, Derek Klena has now officially arrived as a confident and charismatic leading man, after a string of parts in both Broadway and Off-Broadway shows.
Finally, there is Christy Altomare in the leading role of Anya. She is the one who may just be the long-lost granddaughter of the Dowager Empress, and her scene with Mary Beth Peil toward the conclusion, where she must prove herself to be the real Anastasia, positively crackles with suspense. But Christy Altomare is grand throughout, and she brings both a transparent honesty and a thrilling singing voice (particularly to the goosebump-raising first act closing song, “Journey to the Past”) to her enormous role. It may seem cliché and hokey to say it, but this may be a case of a star is born, right before your very eyes.
Of course, without fine direction, none of these performances would be possible, and director Darko Tresnjak governs with a strong hand and a wonderful sense of pacing; indeed, this is one show where there is nary an unnecessary scene or moment. The director has also brought an “A” list group of collaborators to “Anastasia,” and they all make stellar contributions, from the gorgeous scenic design by Alexander Dodge, to the luscious costumes by Linda Cho and the striking lighting by Donald Holder (with a strong assist by Aaron Rhyne’s excellent video and projection design). Also, musical director Thomas Murray conducts a great orchestra, playing Stephen Flaherty’s melodic music, which has been supplied with lovely orchestrations by Doug Besterman.
“Anastasia” is a true revelation of a musical and, if Broadway hadn’t already been announced for this show, I would recommend an immediate New York transfer, for, even at Hartford Stage, this show plays like a hit Broadway musical. Let’s hope that this show is given a fine reception in New York, but I wouldn’t wait until then to see it. Do whatever you can to get tickets to see “Anastasia” at Hartford Stage, for this show truly feels like one for the ages.
“Anastasia” continues performances at Hartford Stage in Hartford, CT through June 19, 2016. For tickets, please visit www.hartfordstage.org or call the box office at 860-527-5151.
Top photo: Christy Altomare
Second photo: Derek Klena and Christy Altomare
Photos by Joan Marcus