By Patrick O’Brien
The mythic survival of the Grand Duchess Anastasia has endured a century of sweeping sociological changes and a parade of pretenders, among other things. Still, we cling to that what-if, but the whys remain. Why this particular royal family’s downfall? Of the whole bunch, why is Anastasia the favorite hoped-for survivor?
And, moreover, why make a Broadway musical out of it now, more than 10 years after forensic evidence conclusively proved she wasn’t spared? A fascination with royal families, even in non-monarchies? A subconscious rejection of the messy history that in many ways still defines Russia today?
The more cynical among us would say: damn the history lesson; the animated 1997 musical telling of the tale made money, and now that the younger generations that fell in love with that film are old enough to spend money on a night at the theater with their own families, the money people want in on the tween musical market.
But let’s not be so harsh; there are seasoned hands behind what’s on tour at the Nederlander, after all. There’s Main Stem stalwarts Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, preserving, expanding and in some ways improving on their film score. There’s bookwriter Terrence McNally, no stranger to historical epics, ready to clear out the less…factually sound parts of the film (i.e. a demonic sorcerer Rasputin and his band of insect minions) and steer the story in a more mature direction (i.e. he can say “Bolshevik”). There’s Darko Tresnjak, a seasoned director who can handle sweeping spectacle and intimate scenes, even in large touring houses.
And they have a solid-enough frame to work with, since the story has been told and retold so many times: A pair of Leningrad lowlifes want out of Russia and in on a sizable reward the Dowager Empress Marie, now an expatriate in Paris, is offering to anyone who can provide proof of a Romanov survivor. With luck, they come across Anya, a street sweeper who bears an uncanny resemblance to Anastasia, but whose entire childhood memory is lost to her. In other words, they have the ideal candidate to train to win over the Empress. But the more time they spend together, the more it seems Anya may just be the genuine article…
Yet even with the license to delve deeper, Anastasia the Broadway musical still feels constrained somehow. Consequently, though it looks and sounds like a million rubles, you don’t believe a stitch or syllable of any of it, which is a problem for a fantasy.
What’s holding it back? It could be the material itself. Stretching a 90-minute movie into a two-act musical may make things a little thin. Even though McNally does add some episodes that steer this family-oriented musical into some grisly territory, such turns feel like affectations at maturity when everything else is so broadly convivial, so — dare we say?—cartoonish. For their part, Ahrens and Flaherty have kept the good songs — “Journey to the Past” becomes the big Act One closer — and have made some worthy additions, particularly a mournful last goodbye to the motherland, “Stay, I Pray You” or said motherland’s new anthem, “The Neva Flows.” The rest is kind of filler.
It could be because the lead roles are rather vacant. Either the writing behind them is limiting or the performers on press night were just ever-so off. Anya acts imperious even before she gets the faintest notion she could in fact be the Grand Duchess. Dmitry, one of the lowlifes and the leading man, is himself missing scenes that would make his burgeoning romance with Anya credible, particularly the scene where he ultimately refuses the reward. As is, it’s mentioned after the fact.
These could-bes all seem to manifest in the musical’s primary invention: Gleb, a Party official whose father helped execute the Romanovs, and so he’s out to finish the job, as it were. A great idea, but his brutality stands out in unflattering way against the cheeriness, and, as was performed on press night, was entirely unthreatening, unconnected and unconvincing.
There’s some relief in the supporting parts, particularly Joy Franz as the Dowager Empress. Hers is the most moving performance, bearing a deep survivor’s guilt that slowly melts away into a nana’s joy. It’s a shame her essence is confined to the second act, as she seems to embody what the writers wanted most: deeper emotional exploration into these characters while still remaining somewhat palatable.
Maybe we don’t need to close the door entirely on the myth of Anastasia, much in the way we don’t need to slough off fantasy entirely. Perhaps with a close-enough look, a century-old fantasy can yield its own reward. Anastasia the musical, though, comes and goes without adding on anything new.
Broadway in Chicago presents “Anastasia” through April 7 at the Nederlander Theater, 24 W Randolph Street, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.