Russian History Takes Center Stage in ‘Anastasia’

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Image by Fox Animation Studios
Image by Fox Animation Studios

I’ve long loved the Don Bluth film Anastasia, so when I found out it has been adapted into a stage musical now playing at the Hartford Stage, I knew I had to go. I fully expected good music, winning leads, and a lot of historical inaccuracies. But it turns out, there are a lot more communists in this musical than I anticipated!

In the film, the main villain is a zombie necromancer called Rasputin. He is named after the mystical faith healer hired by a desperate Empress Alexandra Romanova when her son was born a hemophiliac, but he bears very little resemblance to the historical figure. For one, he is literally undead. And he has a talking bat familiar. And he is responsible for the deaths of the Romanov family, which happen when Anastasia is a young child, off screen, and for no particular reason beyond, well, he’s a bad guy who doesn’t like them.

In reality, Anastasia was killed by Bolshevik soldiers when she was seventeen, along with her father, the former Tsar, and the rest of her family, as part of a political revolution that ended in the formation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The new musical chooses to hew much closer to this history than the cartoon did. The main villain is a young Soviet bureaucrat, Comrade Gleb, who grew up within view of the Romanovs’ exile and eventual execution because his father was one of the soldiers tasked with their deaths. He firmly believes their murder was justified, required, and that the new order is good and right and moral. He is far more complex than the caricature of Rasputin in the film, though also far less fun, and it’s an interesting choice.

Nicole Scimeca and Mary Beth Peil. Photo by Joan Marcus; Hartford Stage
Nicole Scimeca and Mary Beth Peil. Photo by Joan Marcus; Hartford Stage

In fact, it’s a whole musical of interesting choices. The real Anastasia’s death was confirmed in 2007 (ten years after the release of the cartoon), but for nearly a hundred years it was uncertain, and the fairy tale as portrayed in the film Anastasia was preferred to history even after its accuracy was wholly debunked. The musical uses both the desire for the fairy tale and the tragedy of the truth to construct a nuanced story.

The backstory given to the musical’s Anya bears a more than passing resemblance to Anna Anderson, an amnesic young woman who claimed to be the escaped Anastasia. Anna convinced members of the extended Romanov family but it was wishful thinking; she died in a mental hospital still believing she was secretly a princess. All of the characters in the musical come to believe Anya is truly Anastasia, but the audience is given an out if they prefer to believe she is simply a young woman so lonely for a family she tricks herself into remembering. Anya is not a tragic heroine, however, and she is never painted as a trickster. Her desires are very relatable, and royalty or not, she refuses to be treated poorly, which makes her a good role model for little girls in the audience.

But it’s Dmitry and Gleb that really surprise me. They are given parallel lives. Both grew up poor in proximity to waning power. Both lost their fathers to the war. Both first encountered Anastasia when she was a young girl. Both fall for Anya. Both choose Anya over their own goals. As stated, Gleb is a communist. Dmitry says explicitly he is an anarchist. And while Anya is somewhat apolitical, the dream of Anastasia she represents is clearly Tsarist.

This is an American musical about Russian history presented as a love triangle between Tsarists, communists, and anarchists. It’s flawed but wow, it has brilliant potential.

The musical starts slow and I enjoyed the second act, when the story moves from set up in Russia to pay off in France, more than the first. The staging is really well done and Alexander Dodge’s set design is incredible, with one exception (an unnecessary Eiffel Tower that looked like a tin toy in the otherwise realistic set). The costumes by Linda Cho are wonderful, and if you’re in the area there’s a presentation of the process of making them open to the public at Hartford Stage.

Alida Michal (in the air) and the company of 'Anastasia'. Photo by Joan Marcus; Hartford Stage
Alida Michal (in the air) and the company of ‘Anastasia’. Photo by Joan Marcus; Hartford Stage

My favorite sequence is a number sung by the Dowager Empress, Anya, Dmitry, and Gleb, while they are all at the ballet watching Swan Lake. A mini presentation of the ballet is staged while the quartet sings, and there is a well deserved curtain call for the ballerinas built into the show. It’s all very clever and I loved every second.

My favorite scene is between Anya and the Dowager Empress, played by Christy Altomare and Mary Beth Peil. I’ve admired Peil in Dawson’s Creek and The Good Wife and I feel privileged to have seen her live! But as talented as the actresses are, and as well as they played the climactic scene wherein the Empress recognizes Anya as her lost granddaughter, it’s my daughter watching with tears in her eyes beside me I’ll always remember. When the scene and song ended she applauded as loudly as she could, as if determined to make the actors hear her and know how much they moved her. It’s moments like that that make live theater so magical.

Anastasia is playing at Hartford Stage through June 19 and is expected to head to Broadway for the 2016-2017 season.

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