To enjoy Anastasia—and I did enjoy it, quite a lot—you can’t expect it to be what it isn’t. It’s far from the serious-minded musical currently in vogue: consistent in tone, thematically focused and boasting the sound of today. Instead, as if cued by act one closer “Journey to the Past,” it’s a deliberate throwback to a bygone era. Virtually nothing in Terrence McNally’s lean libretto, or Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s lush score, couldn’t have been seen (or wouldn’t have been lauded) in the late 1920’s, when Anastasia is set. Buffs, who’ll recall Anya told in haut-floperetta style for two weeks in 1965, can readily identify elements of the light opera playbook followed by Naughty Marietta and The Merry Widow. (Scoff if you must, but those were crowd-pleasers in their day, as this show has been in its.)
And you can’t honestly deem it a fairy tale. Fairy tales take place in mythical realms of magic, whereas Anastasia is set against real-life events. And what tumultuous events they are: Imperial excess in its last gasps; the Czar’s family murdered; civil war; survivors plotting in Jazz Age Paris. As in previous versions—the Marcelle Maurette-Guy Bolton play whose film brought Ingrid Bergman an Oscar, and the animated reworking that led to the attraction at hand—there’s plenty Romanov bling available to anyone who can establish a plausible claim. Which inspires some enterprising con men to make over an amnesiac peasant girl (Christy Altomare) in the image of the titular rumored massacre survivor, enough at least to persuade the grandmother (Judy Kaye, newly replacing Mary Beth Peil) to hand over the keys.
That’s the story, but how it’s told is what matters. Because McNally is in essence writing an operetta libretto, downtrodden Dmitry (Zach Adkins, a fresh, charismatic new talent) has more at stake than wealth in his burgeoning romance with the confused Anya (Altomare striking a nice balance between neurosis and Broadway-heroine perkiness). They’re of the same hardscrabble world, but she may be of a different world, so there are problems but ah! Love will conquer all….if you catch my drift. Sidekick Vlad (John Bolton), besotted by Imperial Court memories, is motivated mostly by flirtation with Countess Lily (Lauren Blackman in for Vicki Lewis at the performance caught). Bolton and Blackman’s amusing turns reveal their characters have little interest in making a killing.
Gleb, however, does want to make a killing: He’s a current commissar deputized to finish the job on this reputed rescued Romanov, who strangely rattles his Marxist-Leninist sangfroid. High-stakes villains torn between duty and passion frequently haunted operettas, and ever-reliable Max von Essen plays this one to the hilt and, but for one wince-inducing moment permitted by director Darko Tresnjak, without camp.
There’s your lineup, light opera fans, and let’s not forget the waltzes. Lots and lots of waltzes from Peggy Hickey, some in flashback from old St. Petersburg, all eye-popping in Linda Cho’s extravagant costumes. And as lit by Donald Holder, Alexander Dodge’s elegant marble framing of Aaron Rhyne’s Drama Desk Award-winning projections—4K-clear vistas of Petersburg and Paris, and a thrilling ride on a moving train—pops whatever eyes are left to pop after Cho’s gowns have flitted by.
So Anastasia sends you, if you let yourself be sent, off on a cascade of melody and visual splendor. Just don’t think about it all too much. Let it go that they insist on pronouncing the heroine’s name with an Americanized long A and middle “zh,” instead of the short A and soft “s” that would gibe with the show’s Old World qualities. (Don’t even get me started on how they mangle “Nikolaevna.”) Ignore the rejection of the broken-hearted cry “Malenkaia” when Nana recognizes her granddaughter, in favor of the 1,368th invocation of “Anastasia!” (Kaye, sharp and sturdy as always, could have knocked a “Malenkaia” out of the park.)
And I wouldn’t fret about the taste choices in using the Russian Revolution, its causes and outcomes, as the backdrop for love story. Operetta always sees the real world through romantic mists lit by dim embers. Friml, Romberg, Victor Herbert and now Ahrens and Flaherty adapt John Ford’s old adage to their Great White Way purpose. When the legend becomes fact, stage the legend.
Anastasia opened April 24, 2017, at the Broadhurst Theatre. Reviewed: October, 2018. Tickets and information: anastasiathemusical.com