Hollywood to Broadway – Anastasia

Your old pal The MN Movie Man took some time away from dark movie theaters in May for a long overdue visit to The Big Apple and caught up with what Broadway has to offer. Theaters in NYC and London’s West End are continually being filled with stage adaptations of movie properties and out of the 10 shows I saw, half of them either began as a film or are revivals of shows that generated a movie version of their own. In this short series, I’ll go through these five musicals from the Great White Way and see how they compare to their Silver Screen counterparts.

The Movie: Anastasia (1997)
The Broadway Show: Anastasia, opened on April 24, 2017

Yes, yes, I know that there was a version of Anastasia from 1956 that netted star Ingrid Bergman a Best Actress Oscar but since the Broadway version was inspired/adapted from the 1997 animated movie let’s focus on that one instead.

Of all the non-Disney animated films that started popping up in the mid to late ‘90s, there was something about 20th Century Fox’s Anastasia that hit the right chord. Hard to believe that a pretty grim plotline involving the family of a Russian Czar being murdered and a mystery girl that could be the lone surviving heir became the basis for a fancifcul musical romp, former Disney animator Don Bluth was riding a nice wave of second banana popularity and managed to massage this one into a family affair. Digging into the supernatural for its villain Rasputin, it wasn’t to be taken very seriously but it surely seemed to remain a fond favorite of a lot of little girls over the years.

Honestly, it’s never been a particular favorite of mine, though full disclosure I’m writing this review from memory instead of recent exposure, but I do remember the handful of songs from Broadway composers Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty being a definite highlight. Nabbing two Oscar nominations for their work, Ahrens and Flaherty would get their chance at a full blown musical version of Anastasia twenty years later but would the adults that were pre-teens in 1997 shell out Broadway prices to bring their children to see Anastasia live again live onstage?

From the screaming crowds and squeals of delight emanating from the Broadhurst Theatre in NYC, the answer is a resounding ‘Yes’. I have to say, though, that the entire affair was completely lost on me and I’m debating whether it was just fatigue from doing standing room for my 7th show in five days or if I simply didn’t care for the piece in general. Make no mistake, it’s got a lovely cast led by the beautiful and genuine Christy Altomare and two swoon-ready leads in Derek Klena and Ramin Karimloo (the only actor to receive rapturous entrance applause) but there’s something fairly vacant about it all. Director Darko Tresnjak, scenic designer Alexander Dodge, and projection designer Aaron Rhyne work wonders with making sense out of swiftly changing scenes by nimbly moving the action around St. Petersburg and Paris and Linda Cho’s costumes are downright stunning.

Yet for all the gloss and glam the material feels kind of ham-fisted and the new music from Ahrens and Flaherty, while orchestrated grandly, never actually soars. The best music is still the two most popular songs from the movie, ‘Once Upon a December’ and ‘A Rumor in St. Petersburg’. Aside from a more than capable set of leads, there’s dynamite supporting work by theater grande dame Mary Beth Peil (Tony nominated here) and a riotous Caroline O’Connor as her mischievous lady in waiting. Whenever those two are onstage the musical snaps to life but with too many ballads and songs that sound the same it’s enough to lull even the most alert tourist into a gentle slumber…I actually dozed off a few times and I was standing up!

Already doing great box office numbers and with productions announced around the world, Anastasia will be coming to your neck of the words eventually and I think the design elements would travel quite well. Here’s hoping the tour gets tweaked a bit to take the air out of some of the scenes and one or two songs get the heave ho to keep the mystery at the heart of Anastasia something we actually want to get to the bottom of.

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