All hit musicals are like one another; each flop flops in its own way.

All hit musicals are like one another; each flop flops in its own way.

The creators of “Anna Karenina” prove that a musical adaptation of the Tolstoy novel isn’t as far-fetched an idea as it might at first appear, and that is no mean feat. There are a few moments– very few, to be sure–when a glimmer of character struggles through the overwhelming trivialization.

What goes wrong, goes wrong immediately. The opening, set at the St. Petersburg train station, reveals Daniel Levine to be a composer of unyielding mundaneness.

None of the show’s melodies lodges in the memory, and when the music isn’t being obvious, which is most of the time, it does battle with the action. Moreover, Peter Matz’s sickly orchestrations are executed–and one does mean executed–by the most incompetent pit orchestra in recent experience.

Peter Kellogg’s writing is equally infelicitous. The show begins, for example , with the chorus singing such choo-choo banalities as “When you wake up/You’resomeplace totally new.” The line “On a train/Slicing through the countryside” seems particularly inapt, coming as it does just after an inattentive guard has been run over.

Similarly, when Anna (Ann Crumb) finally gives up on her indifferent husband, Nicolai (John Cunningham), she arrives late at the home of Count Vronsky (Scott Wentworth) with only one purpose. “I’m sorry, I’m not very good at this,” she blurts out, asking, “Am I being indiscreet?” as they fall to the floor in a tumble of swelling music and heaving chests.

So nuance isn’t a strong point here. Tolstoy’s eccentric stand-in, Levin (Gregg Edelman), has been reduced to a comic figure, sort of Motel the Tailor on loan from “Fiddler on the Roof” and called in from Anatevka for a lark.

His wooing of the alternately bright and petulant Kitty (Melissa Errico) is reduced to a whimsical subplot, though Edelman and Errico rightfully walk off with the show, even if Levin’s big Act 2 number, “That Will Serve Her Right,” sounds like an Allen Sherman ditty.

Aside from that, what goes right comes far more intermittently. “In a Room,” a quartet for the four would-be lovers, is ersatz Sondheim out of “A Little Night Music”; though the characters spend too much time talking about talking, it’s sung with effective polish.

Wentworth, Crumb and Cunningham, good singers all, do what they can with mediocre material and a story that fights the form.

Also good is Jerry Lanning, as Anna’s brother, Stiva. They are paired on “There’s More to Life Than Love,” he announcing that love is all and she demurring, in the closest thing to a standard show tune in the score.

Most of Theodore Mann’s staging consists of shuffling the company on, off and around the circular space, which designer James Morgan has cut off at one end by four columns in front of three doors that serve multiple purposes well.

Patricia Birch’s dance sequences are performed without much elan. Carrie Robbins’ costumes are good period clothes, and Mary Jo Dondlinger’s lighting is generally moody and effective.

Even with its share of howlers, “Anna Karenina” the musical is bad, but it isn’t “Nick & Nora” bad, or even “Rockabye Hamlet” bad.

Compressed, condensed and redrawn in primary colors, this is comic-strip Tolstoy, as if the complex, tragic tale were being told through headlines in the New York Post. Sure, it can be done. Question is, to what purpose?

Anna Karenina

Circle in the Square Theater, New York; 604 seats; $45 top

Production

A Circle in the Square Theater presentation of a musical in two acts based on the novel by Leo Tolstoy, with book and lyrics by Peter Kellogg and music by Daniel Levine; directed by Theodore Mann; musical sequences staged by Patricia Birch; musical direction and dance music arrangements by Nicholas Archer.

Creative

Set, James Morgan; costumes, Carrie Robbins; lighting, Mary Jo Dondlinger; sound, Fox , Perla; orchestrations, Peter Matz; music coordinator, Seymour Red Press; artistic director, Mann; managing director, Robert A. Buckley. Opened Aug. 26, 1992. Reviewed Aug. 25, 1992.

Cast

Count Alexis Vronsky - Scott Wentworth
Anna Karenina - Ann Crumb
Constantin Levin - Gregg Edelman
Prince Oblonsky (Stiva) - Jerry Lanning
Princess Kitty Scherbatssky - Melissa Errico
Seryozha Karenin - Erik Houston Saari
Nicolai Karenin - John Cunningham
With: Gabriel Barre, Jeremy Black, Jonathan Cerullo, Jo Ann Cunningham, Naz Edwards, Larry Hansen, Billy Hipkins, Audrey Lavine, Amelia Prentice, Darcy Pulliam, David Pursley, Ray Wills.
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