There are moments during the new musical Anastasia when the squeals of the tween girls packing the audience approach Beatlemania levels of hysteria. Some seem mildly perplexing, such as a handsomely staged ballet interlude from Swan Lake. But hey, girls love a tutu. Others are more understandable, like the long-anticipated first kiss of the title character — who may be the amnesiac Grand Duchess, last surviving child of the Russian Royal Family of Tsar Nicholas II — and her hot commoner sweetheart Dmitry. Even more ear-splitting are the screams that greet the curtain calls of the lead actors playing those characters, by which time the Fanastasia contingent's princess-fantasy lust has been thoroughly stoked.
The vocal fervor in particular when Derek Klena, who plays Dmitry, takes his bow makes you fear for his post-show safety at the stage door. Or at least his ability to remain clothed. This crowd is not shy about showing its appreciation.
The creative team of librettist Terrence McNally, composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens, who collaborated memorably on the 1996 musical Ragtime, appear to know exactly to whom their new venture is catering. The historically fanciful show’s source credit reads "inspired by the Twentieth Century Fox motion pictures," plural, meaning both the 1956 feature that starred Ingrid Bergman as the possible runaway Romanov, and the 1997 animated version, in which she was voiced by Meg Ryan. But it's the latter film that provides the core here, including its Oscar-nominated song "Journey to the Past," which became a radio pop hit for Aaliyah.
One of a handful of Ahrens and Flaherty compositions originally heard in the film, that tune is strategically placed at the close of Act I, lathering up all those young women who came of age singing along to "Heart, don't fail me now/Courage, don’t desert me." You risk getting trampled as they stampede to the merch stands to snap up their "Once Upon a December" tees in royal purple.
That sizeable audience segment doesn’t even seem to mind that the show as a whole is a tad bland, though it’s beautifully staged by director Darko Tresnjak, reassembling much of his accomplished design team from A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder. Fluid, cinematic scene transitions using a mix of physical sets (by Alexander Dodge) and projections (by Aaron Rhyne) make brisk work of the Bolshevik Revolution, which is simplified for young theatergoers.
Opening in Saint Petersburg in 1907, the prologue introduces the Dowager Empress (Mary Beth Peil, the very definition of grace and class) with her favorite grandchild, Anastasia (Nicole Scimeca). She presents the child with a lullaby-playing antique music box before setting off for Paris, vowing that one day they'll stroll together in the City of Lights on the bridge named for Anastasia's late grandfather. The action then shifts in an instant to a royal ball — costumer Linda Cho dazzles with the ceremonial attire of Tsarina Alexandra (Lauren Blackman) — and from wintry blue into gold, before waltzing ahead to 1917, as blasts of gunfire turn the sky outside the palace windows to blood red. The seamlessness and storytelling economy of that opening sequence is quite impressive, deftly handling the ambiguity surrounding Anastasia's fate, while her family is murdered by revolutionaries.
But the long first act gets bogged down, and while Ahrens and Flaherty certainly know how to craft a narrative-driven song, the music is more often serviceable than inspired. McNally's book dutifully follows the Disney-princess model, mapping out the nascent romantic triangle in pedestrian fashion as the teenage heroine — going by the name Anya (Christy Altomare) since coming to in hospital with amnesia — catches the eye of both good-natured rascal Dmitry and Gleb (Ramin Karimloo), an ambitious soldier of the Soviet regime, and a character new to this version of the story. (Rasputin and his bat minion Bartok from the animated film have been nixed.)
Rumors that Anastasia somehow survived spread as far as Paris, where the Dowager Empress offers a reward for her safe return. Dmitry and his jovial scammer pal Vlad Popov (John Bolton) hatch a plan to pass off the street-sweeper Anya as the Grand Duchess and deliver her to France to collect the cash, while Anya just wants to learn her true identity. Meanwhile, Gleb's late father was the guard who left the job of assassinating the Romanovs unfinished, giving the young soldier a mission that's complicated by his growing feelings for Anya.
From Anya's de rigueur "I want" song, "In My Dreams," to Dmitry's jaunty exhibition of his street-smart survival skills, "My Petersburg," to Gleb's account of his burdened conscience, "The Neva Flows," there's a workmanlike feel to the musical's construction. Lack of nuance in the writing makes the three leads, while vocally strong, quite vanilla. Even as suspense builds around the fugitives' tricky exit from Russia, pursued by Gleb, they lack dimension. But Tresnjak elevates the material, notably in captivating sequences in which Anya's past materializes in dreams of her murdered family returning to her while elegant couples dance in ghostly holograms all over the theater's walls. And the tender, conflicted homeland farewell, "Stay, I Pray You," is the kind of emotional anthem that Ahrens and Flaherty do very well.
The second act picks up considerably with the 1927 move to Paris, even if the video fireworks against a perfect pastel sky threaten to yank the story back into artificial animated territory. A decisive improvement comes with the return of Peil's sorrowful Dowager Empress, still hoping that one of the pretenders sniffing after the reward will turn out to be her beloved granddaughter, but gradually accepting bitter resignation. Peil's song, "Close the Door," is lovely.
There's also a welcome injection of Jazz Age fizz with the introduction of another displaced Russian aristocrat, Countess Lily. She's played with frisky joie de vivre by the delightful Caroline O'Connor, who gets great mileage out of her flirtatious rapport with the always terrific Bolton — despite his dubious pedigree, Vlad is an old flame. McNally and Tresnjak skillfully bring all the characters together at the ballet, where there's as much drama happening in the boxes as there is onstage. The subsequent reunion of the Dowager with her granddaughter is surprisingly moving, adding emotional vitality to the scenes that follow in which Anya/Anastasia learns to listen to her heart. That also helps Altomare's performance acquire cumulative strength as she discovers who she is — not just as a Russian with a history but also in more relatable terms of youthful female empowerment.
That, of course, is the key selling point of this pretty but anodyne musical, which ends up being more satisfying than the sum of its parts. It's a fairy tale whose princess chooses her own kind of prince, a destiny foretold in the stirring shared childhood recollection of Dmitry and Anya, "In a Crowd of Thousands." It's kitschy, old-fashioned entertainment given a relatively sophisticated presentation, and you have to acknowledge its success when you hear the target demographic swoon on cue.
Venue: Broadhurst Theatre, New York
Cast: Christy Altomare, Derek Klena, John Bolton, Ramin Karimloo, Caroline O'Connor, Mary Beth Peil, Nicole Scimeca, Lauren Blackman, Constantine Germanacos, Molly Rushing, Sissy Bell, Allison Walsh, Shina Ann Morris, Ken Krugman, Jennifer Smith, Wes Hart, Kyle Brown, James A. Pierce III, Zach Adkins, Janet Dickinson, Johnny Stellard
Director: Darko Tresnjak
Music: Stephen Flaherty
Lyrics: Lynn Ahrens
Book: Terrence McNally, inspired by the Twentieth Century Fox films
Set designer: Alexander Dodge
Costume designer: Linda Cho
Lighting designer: Donald Holder
Sound designer: Peter Hylenski
Projection designer: Aaron Rhyne
Orchestrations: Doug Besterman
Vocal arrangements: Stephen Flaherty
Music director & supervision: Tom Murray
Choreographer: Peggy Hickey
Executive producer: Eric Cornell
Presented by Stage Entertainment, Bill Taylor, Tom Kirdahy, Hunter Arnold, 50 Church Productions, The Shubert Organization, Elizabeth Dewberry & Ali Ahmet Kocabiyik, Carl Daikeler, Van Dean/Stephanie Rosenberg, Warner/Chappell Music, 42nd Club/Phil Kenny, Judith Ann Abrams Productions, Broadway Asia/Umeda Arts Theater, Harriet Newman Leve, Peter May, David Mirvish, Sandi Moran, Seoul Broadcasting System, Sara Beth Zivitz, Michael Stotts, LD Entertainment/Sally Cade Holmes, Una Jackman & Jay Alix/Blumegreenspan, Carolyn & Marc Serif/Bruno Wang, Silva Theatrical Group/Adam Zell, in association with Hartford Stage