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Connecticut Theater Review: Broadway-Bound Musical ‘Anastasia’

Christy Altomare, Derek Klena, Mary Beth Peil, John Bolton, Manoel Felciano, Caroline O’Connor, Constantine Germanacos, Max Clayton, Alida Michal, Johnny Stellard, Lauren Blackman, Samantha Sturm, Molly Rushing, Shina Ann Morris, Janet Dickinson, Kevin Munhall, Rayanne Gonzales, Ken Krugman, Kevin Ligon, Katherine Mclellan, James Brown III, Nicole Scimeca, Maxwell Carmel, Katherine McLellan.

DNA may have ended the romantic mystery of the Anastasia legend, but fairytale princesses are forever. Making a story of a little girl lost more than child’s play is a challenge largely fulfilled in Hartford Stage’s stunningly staged, emotionally rich and expertly crafted premiere of “Anastasia,” the new musical slated for the 2016-17 Broadway season. But its occasional drifts into “Beauty and the Beast” territory underscore the fact that there’s still some work to do if creatives want the show to enrapture adults as well as kiddies.

In his first new musical since earning a Tony for “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” (which also bowed at Hartford, where he is artistic director), director Darko Tresnjak and librettist Terrence McNally have crafted a show that embraces the power of myth, celebrates the resilience of survivors and touches on the meaning of identity and home, all manna for the musical stage. Source material includes the 1956 film (screenplay by Arthur Laurents, based on a Marcelle Maurette play adapted by Guy Bolton) and the 1997 animated film with a tuneful score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens.

Six songs remain from the animated film, including the Oscar-nominated “Journey to the Past,” here serving as an uplifting first-act capper. New tunes flesh out the story, harkening back to sturdy and satisfying musical comedy tropes.

In a breakout performance, Christy Altomare is captivating as Anya, the feisty Russian orphan with amnesia who isn’t sure if she is the youngest daughter of Czar Nicholas II. Derek Klena is boyishly handsome, charming and strong-voiced as Dmitry, the con man who plots to present Anya as the perhaps-alive princess — until he wonders about the what-if, too.

His song “In a Crowd of Thousands,” where he reveals a surprising bond with Anya, is one of the show’s unexpected, emotional highlights. But the character still needs development in order to dig deeper than Dmitry’s present animated-hero status.

A splendid Mary Beth Piel gives imperial gravitas and human tenderness as the Dowager Empress, who must decide whether Anya is for real or a pretender to the throne, while John Bolton provides good sidekick fun as the raffish scammer Vlad. As the dowager’s major-domo Lily, Caroline O’Connor is marvelous, and Constantine Germanacos has a lovely solo spot as Count Ipolitov, singing about his lost homeland in “Stay, I Pray You.”

This version smartly raises the narrative stakes by creating the character of Gleb (Manoel Felciano), a revolutionary-turned-Bolshevik-autocrat who is attracted to Anya but is also dedicated to making sure Anastasia never returns home. Gleb’s early interest in Anya, however, needs bolstering; a scene in which he aims for a killing at the ballet — don’t shoot the swans! — diminishes a more important follow-up scene.

All the design elements earn admiring gasps, especially Aaron Rhyne’s impressive projections, heightening the drama of the show’s knockout locomotive number, “We’ll Go From There.” Alexander Dodge’s gorgeously elegant, classicist set expediently allows for a wide variety of settings and circumstances, enhanced by Donald Holder’s lighting and Peter Hylenski’s sound design.

Peggy Hickey’s choreography spans the worlds of dance in imperial Russia, Soviet Leningrad, and the streets of Paris, with a serious side trip to classical ballet. The ensemble numbers give the show some kick — but the second-act opener, “Paris Holds the Key,” is so oo-la-la cliche that it slips back to cartoon territory.

Linda Cho’s costumes reflect the regal grandness, the revolutionary drab and the Parisian swank, although Anya’s end-of-show rejection of the privileged life seems a mixed message when she’s wearing a killer red gown.

But the missteps are minor as this show about identity tries, and largely succeeds, to find itself — and a happily-ever-after of its own.

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Connecticut Theater Review: Broadway-Bound Musical 'Anastasia'

Hartford Stage; 533 seats, $115 top. Opened, reviewed, May 27, 2016. Running time: 2 HOURS, 45 MIN.  

Production: A presentation by Hartford Stage with special arrangement by Stage Entertainment USA and Tom Kirdahy Productions of a musical in two acts, inspired by the Twentieth Century Fox Motion Pictures.

Creative: Directed by Darko Tresnjak; book by Terrence McNally; Music by Stephen Flaherty; lyrics by Lynn Ahrens; choreography by Peggy Hickey; music direction, Thomas Murray; orchestrations, Doug Besterman; sets, Alexander Dodge; costumes, Linda Cho; lighting, Donald Holder; sound, Peter Hylenski;  projections, Aaron Rhyne; production stage manager, Bonnie Panson; production manager, Bryan T. Holcombe; stage manager, Trey Johnson.

Cast: Christy Altomare, Derek Klena, Mary Beth Peil, John Bolton, Manoel Felciano, Caroline O’Connor, Constantine Germanacos, Max Clayton, Alida Michal, Johnny Stellard, Lauren Blackman, Samantha Sturm, Molly Rushing, Shina Ann Morris, Janet Dickinson, Kevin Munhall, Rayanne Gonzales, Ken Krugman, Kevin Ligon, Katherine Mclellan, James Brown III, Nicole Scimeca, Maxwell Carmel, Katherine McLellan.

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