I was fortunate enough to be able to view the musical production of Anastasia twice, once as a dress rehearsal on May 12th and the opening night on May 13th. This blog post will discuss the production and what I thought about it from start to finish. This is based on those two performances from my personal perspective. With that said, this is not a spoiler free post. As a disclaimer, I am not affiliated with anyone related to the production nor am I writing this from the point of view of a reviewer or as someone with a background in theatre. I am writing this as a fan of the 1997 Don Bluth film and the history (and mystery) of Grand Duchess Anastasia. For some context preceding this post as well as the story of how I became a fan of Anastasia and the process of getting from my home in Vancouver, Canada to Hartford Stage, please check out my previous post: “My Journey To The Past… and Hartford, Connecticut“.
For the sake of clarity in this post, I’m going to refer to the show as Anastasia the Musical, the 1997 film as Anastasia, and the actual person just as Anastasia. Hopefully that makes it less confusing!
Anastasia the Musical is a stage interpretation of both Anastasia and the 1956 film by the same name (it just keeps getting more confusing!). I have not seen the 1956 movie and was unsuccessful in tracking it down, but found a plot summary (thanks Wikipedia!) that reveals that it’s relatively similar to the 1997 film. Basically, a girl (Anna Anderson) shows up in Paris who claims to know information about the Tsar and his family ten years after they were killed. She has been groomed by a very Dimitri-esque figure, a general, in order to receive a large amount of money that was discovered in one of the tsar’s old bank accounts. Anna meets with Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovona (Anastasia’s paternal grandmother) and they throw a ball in which Anna is to announce her engagement to a prince, but ends up eloping with the Dimitri-esque character.
For those who have not watched the 1997 film, Anastasia (it’s on Netflix if you haven’t! Or if you just want to relive the masterpiece…) it follows the journey of Anya, a Russian orphan who goes to St. Petersburg after aging out of the orphanage she grew up in. There she meets Dimitri and Vlad, two conmen who are determined to find a girl that can be trained to pass as an imposter of the lost princess Anastasia. Their goal is to obtain the ten million rubles that the Dowager Empress is offering as a reward to whoever can reunite her with the granddaughter now rumoured to be alive. Dimitri and Vlad are struck by the resemblance Anya has to Anastasia and convince Anya that since she has no memories of her true identity before she was in the orphanage, it is possible that she is the lost grand duchess. This sends them on a (song-filled) journey to Paris where the Dowager Empress lives. Paris is also the only clue Anya has to her past, as she was found roaming the streets as a child with a necklace that says “Together in Paris”. Along the way, Vlad and Dimitri teach Anya about Anastasia’s past as she will have to prove she is the grand duchess to Sophie, the Dowager Empress’ cousin who acts as her lady-in-waiting. When they arrive at Sophie’s house in Paris, Anya impresses her with the knowledge she has, but Sophie states that many of the imposters did as well. She then asks Anya how Anastasia and her grandmother escaped from the palace when it was under siege, a scene that plays at the beginning of the film where a young Dimitri, a kitchen boy at the palace, shows them the servants exit through which they escape both the burning palace under siege and the evil Rasputin who has vowed to kill each member of the Romanov family. Anya then remembers, saying that a boy opened a wall and Dimitri then realizes that Anya truly is Anastasia. The Dowager Empress has vowed to not see any more girls claiming to be her granddaughter, but Sophie tells them that she will be at the Russian ballet. When Dimitri tries to introduce Anya to the Dowager Empress, she says she has heard of the auditions he held for girls to play the part of Anastasia. Anya overhears this, feels betrayed and leaves. Dimitri forces the two women into the same room by showing the Dowager Empress a music box he found when he let them escape the palace, that she had given her young granddaughter. She goes up to Anya’s room, and Anya recognizes a peppermint smell and shares a memory. This leads to the Dowager Empress seeing Anya’s necklace and Anya remembers that it is the key to the music box which plays their song and they realize they’ve finally found each other. Dimitri doesn’t end up taking the reward money and Vlad is given a role in court. At a ball thrown in honour of Anastasia’s return, she leaves to chase Pooka, her canine companion throughout the film, who leads her into a maze. There Rasputin, whose attempts to kill Anastasia had been repeatedly unsuccessful, tries to kill her himself. Dimitri shows up and the two heroes fight Rasputin, with Anastasia destroying the source of his power- his reliquary. Anastasia is faced with the choice of a life as the grand duchess or with Dimitri. She writes to her grandmother to say that she and Dimitri eloped.
When I purchased the two tickets for Anastasia the Musical, I had no idea what to expect. My musical theatre knowledge falls somewhere between minimal and nonexistent on whatever scale you would measure such things with. I mean, I could probably list you a dozen musicals but (Disney movie adaptations aside) I probably know the plot of like… two.
So I was just assuming they were just going to take the script from Anastasia, maybe switch a few things so that the weirdos like me who have the movie memorized can’t say the lines along with the actors, and cast real people to play the formerly animated roles. Maybe call up Meg Ryan and Christopher Lloyd.
Since I had tickets for the first night of the show, there was no way to scope out spoilers or see what to expect. I’m the kind of person who reads the descriptions of each episode before I start a new season of a show on Netflix. I like to know what’s headed my way. I followed @AnastasiaStage on Twitter and @AnastasiaMusical on Instagram and awaited news.
The first thing came as a tweet and linked to an article revealing that Rasputin would not be the main antagonist of the production.
I figured out that Anastasia was historically inaccurate when I was eleven. The film begins with the Dowager Empress introducing the movie as taking place in 1916. According to the encyclopedia (yes, you read that right), Anastasia was born in 1901 which would make her fifteen in the prequel part of the film, not eight-years-old as she was shown. I was appalled that the authority I put in a movie had lead me astray. This is only the start of the long list of historical inaccuracies shown in Anastasia. No, the Russian Revolution was not caused by Rasputin (and his pal, Bartok the talking bat) showing up uninvited a-la-Maleficent to the family’s party. THIS Tumblr infographic hilariously points out all the different things that the movie got wrong. Don’t get me wrong, Anastasia is my favourite animated movie, and second favourite movie of all time but I know a lot of “creative liberties” were taken so I can definitely appreciate that post. Plus it is just really freaking funny (the “Have You Heard, Comrad, There’s a Rumor in Leningrad” gets me every time), so I definitely recommend checking it out.
I kind of figured that it would be hard to translate Anastasia‘s interpretation of Rasputin, complete with glowing demon ghosts coming from a glass reliquary. And the dancing/ talking/ singing bug minions? Probably a bit difficult to replicate on stage.
The article discussed a new villain-esque character, Gleb, that would be introduced. But it also mentioned that the story was always going to be about the search for home and family, not necessarily hero versus villain drama.
I wasn’t sure how I felt about this and was kind of disappointed. “In The Dark of the Night” is my favourite song from the film (aside from the end credit song) and probably one of my favourite villain songs of all time. But no Rasputin meant no ITDOTN.
I found out that the Oscar nominated “Journey to the Past” would be a part of the production, as well as the Golden Globe nominated “Once Upon a December”. Fair enough. But what about “At The Beginning” aka the end credit song aka my favourite song in the whole wide world? From what I read there were going to be a few songs from the movie, but adapted for the stage and over a dozen new songs. New songs… the idea was slightly terrifying. Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, the original songwriters for Anastasia were also behind the music for Anastasia the Musical so I knew I owed them a fair bit of trust.
It was also discussed that although Anastasia’s remains had been identified in 2007, the musical would deal more with the “legend” that is Anastasia Nikolaevna. As they say, one meaning of her name is in fact, “resurrection”.
We checked in on the list of people viewing the dress rehearsal and walked around the lobby until they were ready to let us in. I wasn’t sure if pictures were allowed but I got a couple of some costuming related displays.
There was also a little merchandise booth. On the night of the dress rehearsal I only saw little tins of chocolates that had the musical logo, but on the official opening night they had a whole bunch of memorabilia… and I went a little crazy. I purchased a shirt, a mug, and a poster which came to about $30. I figured that was actually really reasonable, considering concert T-shirts are usually $35 and when the musical hits Broadway the prices would probably increase significantly.
I’m not going to lie, to get the mug picture I made my brother walk with me back to the stage on the Saturday on our way to the airport. We got a whole bunch of strange looks as we stood on the sidewalk (with me kneeling on the cement barricade in order to position the picture properly) with our suitcases and pretending to act real casual whenever a car drove by. All for the Instagram game, my friends. I am so weird.
When we were ushered in, the theatre was empty aside from small tables scattered around the room with various pieces of equipment and people attending them.
We were instructed to sit in section F, which had been reserved for the out-of-towners that were viewing the dress rehearsal.
On the second night we were sitting in section E.
Beside us (not pictured) was a man and a woman who were dressed very officially. The woman had a notebook and we guessed they were reviewers, as the woman made notes a few times throughout the performance. She was being very stealthy but my brother caught a glance at one point and said she wasn’t writing in English so he couldn’t tell what she was saying. We’re pretty sure the man was Tom Kirdahy who liked one of my tweets after the show and he looked like he did in the pictures but it was dark in the theatre and we weren’t really looking at him directly haha.
The show started both nights with the Artistic Director, Darko Tresnjak, giving a speech. For the dress rehearsal it was a bit more specific and personal. He thanked us for coming so far to see the show, talked about how this was the biggest show that Hartford Stage had ever done in over 50 years, and mentioned how there were over one hundred costumes for 24 performers. Impressive right? Because the Thursday night show was a dress rehearsal and the Friday, despite being the premier, was still technically a preview show, he mentioned at both how they might have to stop the performers in the middle of things. This was emphasized on the first night, and said very casually the second (although they didn’t end up having to stop at all on the second night). It was made known that phones were to be put away and no photos or video were to be taken. On the dress rehearsal night, he joked that they had a professional for that and sure enough, throughout the whole play that night there was a guy circling the stage taking photos with a fancy camera. With that said, I didn’t take any pictures other than of the curtain before and after the performance (as seen above) so the pictures used in the remainder of this post with content from the performance were not taken by and do not belong to me and will be attributed to their appropriate sources. Darko then ended by saying, “Enjoy this Journey to the Past” which everyone (including myself) appreciated and I gave him a inner-mind finger gun and mentally applauded him for a pun well done. Well, I actually was applauding at that point… but you know what I mean.
The play is split into two acts separated by one intermission. Act I takes place in Russia (as well as the journey to Paris), while Act II is set in Paris.
Act I begins with Saint Petersburg: 1907 being shown on the screen at the back of the stage. I didn’t really see this the first night because of the angle.
Six-year-old Anastasia (played by Nicole Scimeca) is sitting on her bed with her Nana, Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovona (portrayed by Mary Beth Peil) brushing her hair. This scene is the answer to the prologue of the movie, as they exchange the same dislike for having to be apart, as the Dowager Empress will be returning to France. She gives Anastasia a music box as a gift, which begins to play Once Upon a December which they sing along to. They do sing the full version of the song, not the “soon you’ll be home with me” version that they sing in the prologue of the film. She promises Anastasia that when they are together in Paris they will visit the Pont Alexandre III, the bridge that is named after Alexander III (The Dowager’s late husband and Anastasia’s grandfather). The Tsar (Constantine Germanacos) and Tsarina (Lauren Blackman) come on stage and Alexander urges his mother to rejoin the party. Right away the costumes are STUNNING. Tsarina Alexandra’s gown is beyond any princess dress you’ve ever seen with countless jewels catching light every time she moved. My nineteen-year-old brother’s first comment after the play was “Anastasia’s mom’s dress was the prettiest thing I have ever seen”. For real.
The scene continues as Alexander begins to dance with his young daughter. Anastasia’s sisters Olga (Samantha Sturm), Tatiana (Shina Ann Morris), and Maria (Alida Michal) join in dancing and with a spin Anastasia is now 17 (and played by Molly Rushing) and “1917” appears on the back of the stage. The girls are joined by suitors, (Max Clayton, Kevin Munhall, Johnny Stellard, and James Brown III) and the group continues to dance and ends by taking really impressively staged “pictures”.
Something that might have gone unnoticed was Alexei (Nicole Scimeca) dancing until he slips and falls, causing everyone to rush to him. This is a nod to how Alexei suffered from hemophilia B, meaning even seemingly trivial injuries like a bruise or scrape could be potentially fatal.
The lights at the back of the stage begin to flash, and through the set windows you could see thunder and lighting with fire and hear the palace being stormed. While the lights and other visual elements were extremely effective, they were only present on the second night with the dress rehearsal just featuring basic light effects and the audio elements. The family leaves the stage, but Anastasia panics and runs the opposite way.
The stage then changes to reveal that it is now 1927. The first night I was pretty sure it said “Leningrad” on the screen as well, but didn’t notice it the second night so this could have been my mistake or just a change that was made. The scene shows a Russian street with a podium in the middle. A Bolshevik soldier is talking and people around the stage are in rags.
After the soldier leaves, the people on the stage begin talking about the effects of the change from the Tsarist imperial rule to the Bolshevik Communist government and eventual rise of the USSR. While the 1997 film Anastasia only minimally (and that’s being generous) deals with the political issues surrounding the revolution that results in the death of Anastasia’s family, the musical attempts to bring these more to the forefront, replacing the Disney-esque magic element with actual historical-based conflict, hence the new villain.
The characters discuss the strife they’re enduring, that although they are glad the imperial rule is in the past (something that was heavily romanticized in the film) but are still dissatisfied with their lives as “equal” comrades and struggling to survive in Leningrad. Dmitry (played by Derek Klena) says that no matter what, it will always be “Petersburg” to him.
And queue music.
As soon as the opening notes to A Rumor in St. Petersburg started up, I had goosebumps. Both nights there was an excited murmur rushing through the crowd. This opening number of the 1997 film reveals the title of the movie in the clouds, floats down through the sky and pans over the town and sets up the premise. A few lyrics were changed in the song, notably the “I got this from the palace/ it’s lined with real fur/ it could be worth a fortune/ if it belonged to her” is no longer a black cape, but Anastasia’s music box. “I got this from the palace, initialed with an A”, and in a humorous exchange Dmitry trades him two cans of beans for it, again underscoring the desperation and poverty. My immediate reaction was… okay, so how did Anastasia meet Dmitry and how is he going to know she’s the real deal? This is one of the main changes they made, but I’ll come back to that. The sequence introduces, as mentioned, Dmitry, as well as Vlad Popov (portrayed by John Bolton) as well as Gleb (portrayed by Manoel Felciano) and a now adult Anya (Christy Altomare), although they are not officially named yet and just share an exchange as she is a street sweeper and he a Bolshevik official of some kind. The chorus did a phenomenal job and while staying true to the original song, introduced new plot points and addressed some of the original history.
Dmitry and Vlad hold their auditions to find a girl to play Anastasia for the reward money offered by the Dowager Empress for her return. It doesn’t go well. Anya comes in, asking for Dmitry to help her with travel papers. This is where we get her back story, mostly through a song called “In My Dreams”.
Unlike in Anastasia, the Anya of Anastasia the Musical stays true to the age Anastasia actually would have been. The prologue for each version reveals a young Anastasia separated from her family, but Anastasia would have been seventeen (as she is in the musical) when this occurred, not eight. As such, she would not have been put in an orphanage as she is in the film, so musical-version Anya explains that she woke up in a hospital and couldn’t remember anything. She was given the name Anya by the nurses and ended up on the streets travelling the country and making money whatever way she could, with the intention to get to Paris, as she feels a connection to the city.
Dmitry and Vlad agree to take her to Paris, convincing her that she must be Anastasia, and if she isn’t the Dowager Empress would simply set her straight and it was worth a try regardless.
The scene changes to a press room. A song entitled “The Rumours Never End” involves the reporters typing and gossiping about how their “comrades” have turned on each other and are reporting anti-Bolshevik loyalties to the authorities, even turning on neighbours and family members.
Gleb enters and through a song “A Simple Thing” we learn that his father was one of the soldiers that shot the Tsar, Tsarina, and their family in Yekaterinburg, and that he used to go there as a child and see the Tsar’s children playing outside. He speaks about how everyone must do their duty and the song ends with him wondering what he would have done if he was in his father’s place holding the gun.
The scene changes and it is now a classroom setup with Vlad, Dmitry, and Anya. She is told that they have to instruct her how to act like “Anastasia Romanov”. Cue: “Learn To Do It”.
In the film, “Learn To Do It” is the song that marks the majority of the physical journey from Russia to Paris. While taking various forms of transportation, the trio sing as Dimitri (the two different spellings are throwing me off haha) and Vlad tell Anya about her alleged family history and instruct her how to act like royalty. There are a couple alterations in the musical version, the most obvious being that it takes place in the abandoned palace with a makeshift schoolroom setting. To document the passage of time the screens in the windows show different weather patterns, such as snow and rain.
One added line comes when they are talking about proper formal actions and Vlad mentions bowing, to which Dmitry replies “I bowed to someone once”, which seems like just an offhand comment to his lower class status and casual demeanour, but was something that really stood out on the second night as an important line referencing a future plot point. What everyone else just kind of chuckled at, I turned to my brother and pouted, clutching my heart.
A cute moment was when, Anya is being taught to dance with Dmitry (and failing), Vlad steps in and dances with Dmitry, putting Anya in the middle (pictured). This is a nod to the scene (one of my very, very favourites) in Anastasia where the two are dancing on the deck of the ship.
The next scene is back at Gleb’s office. Anya comes in saying that she was summoned but hasn’t done anything wrong. Gleb, without looking at her, goes off on a tangent about how their new Russia is built on everyone playing their part and not stepping out of line. “Comrade” is thrown around a lot. He mentions how he had heard she was involved with some suspicious activities. He notices her and remembers her as the street sweeper he saw earlier (during the “A Rumour in St. Petersburg” sequence) and is immediately flustered, clearly enamoured with the pretty girl. He introduces himself and asks her name, which segues into the song, “Anya”. Basically it says how it’s a simple name that is not pretentious, contentious or trying to be something it’s not (ironically, since her actual name is Anastasia which is like… top ten fanciest name ever). To be honest the whole thing was pretty creepy, as I’m sure was the intention. My face was pretty much the same as Anya’s in the following picture.
Gleb looks Anya in the eye and is appears to be taken aback, so it is implied that he recognizes her to be Anastasia since he would have known her from Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg. He warns her not to continue with what she’s doing as it is dangerous and that if she were to be who she is pretending to be then that wouldn’t end well for anyone. He gives flirting a shot, but is turned down by a handshake and Anya calling him Comrade, then leaving.
Gleb then continues into a song called “The Neva Flows”. To be honest I couldn’t tell you much about this song other than the reference to the Neva river, and that it was stuck in my head forever. It is stuck in my head right now. Out of all the songs in the whole musical, I don’t know why since it’s not really catchy and more of a menacing ballad, it’s memorable. I found it to be basically a continuation of “A Simple Thing”.
The stage changes to reveal some guys warming themselves by a burn barrel, when Anya and Dmitry come on stage. The men make fun of her for being/ claiming to be the grand duchess and do the usual “oooh your girlfriend” when Dmitry stands up for her. Thus a fight ensues which ends with Anya chasing them off. Dmitry asks where she learned to fight like that (kind of cliché but we’re rolling with it) and she says that she had to learn to fight in order to protect herself and live on the streets for so long, making her way across the country. I appreciated this addition because it makes Anya a little more badass. Even though the movie version of Anya has an attitude and can look after herself, the whole living on the streets and participating in a little mini brawl adds some edge to the tiny strawberry-blonde character.
Dmitry adds to Anya’s story of living on the streets with his own, prefaced by a bit of backstory about his parents. In the film, Dimitri is given no back story other than being a kitchen boy in the palace. Nothing before. Nothing after, until the opening notes of “A Rumor in St. Petersburg”.
We find out that Dmitry’s mother died when he was very young and it was just him and his father, who was an Anarchist. Unfortunately, Dmitry’s father was killed for his beliefs, leaving young Dmitry an orphan. He reminisces about his father and the nickname he had, Dima. Anya teases him for it.
This leads into the song, “My Petersburg”. Now, I have to say I really enjoyed all the songs in the musical but this one was definitely my favourite. It wasn’t the fanciest or most emotional, but was just such a great way to give Dmitry a kind of character song while revisiting the line he gives before “A Rumour in St. Petersburg”, relating his experiences to Anya’s and bringing forth the theme of home. I just adored it, and the whole “the streets raised me” thing gets me every time. When I talked to my brother on the way back to the hotel, he said this was his favourite song too… so there’s definitely something there.
After the musical bonding that the two share, Dmitry shows Anya the music box, saying that it’s probably broken. She, however, winds it up and as the music starts playing, she realizes the song and begins to sing “Once Upon a December”.
Again, this was beyond beautiful as they reference the film where Anya breaks into the old palace and sees all the things she “almost remembers” and when she enters the ballroom all the spirits burst from the windows and dance with her. Probably the most stunning part of the film.
This scene is such a feat of animation, so to see it not only in live action, but being preformed in front of my eyes was incredible.
The actors from the prologue dance scene all return and dance around her as spectres, with silhouettes projected onto the walls. The effect was gorgeous and I bet everyone in the room had goosebumps.
Anya then reveals a diamond that one of the nurses found sewn into her dress when she was found at age seventeen. I thought that the diamond functioned as the musical’s version of the “Together in Paris” necklace but also as a nod to how when taken into captivity, Anastasia, her mother, sisters, and the couple of women that stayed with the family sewed jewels into their clothes for safe keeping. Because of these, it is known that the massacre of the family was made even more brutal. It took almost half an hour to kill them all since the jewels functioned as armour. There’s a whole bunch of metaphor in there that the English Literature nerd in me wants to tackle, but this is not the post. Anyway, when the rumour started that Anastasia might have escaped the slaughter, one of the theories was that she never was killed because of the jewels in her clothes, and was able to escape. So I thought this was a smart way to acknowledge that.
They decide to sell the diamond in order to purchase train tickets.
The train scene was incredibly well staged. It begins with several people lining up and talking, while the main trio discuss how this train is full of wealthy and intelligent people trying to flee Russia and the persecution they face.
Despite all the differences between the film and the musical, the themes are the same in the search for home, love, and family. However, in the film the only memorable references to a home is in “Journey to the Past” and on the train where Anya asks Dimitri if he will miss Russia, and is confused when he says no because, as she says, it’s his home. This opens the dichotomy between home and “a place I once lived” that is touched on in the film, but aside from that there is no real love lost when leaving Russia. The musical does a fantastic job of changing that and complicates the idea of home as both the homeland of Russia and the nostalgia of a former Russia, which comes up in “My Petersburg”. This is the most chilling, haunting, incredible song of the entire musical: “Stay, I Pray You”.
The song begins with Count Ipolitov (Constantine Germanacos) singing a solo, and the trio and ensemble joining in. I literally do not know what to type here as there are no words to describe it. I got the most insane shivers and it was just beyond anything and everything. Basically it features the people boarding the train mourning for a lost Russia and for the fact that they are leaving despite wanting to be loyal. I can just hear the “until I die”, in my head and get goosebumps just thinking about it. As if the lyrics and delivery of the song weren’t enough, the song was IN THE TUNE OF “IN THE DARK OF THE NIGHT”. Literally incredible. The harmonies were haunting and I felt that even though the song itself was not in the musical, this version was a perfect homage to it without being cheesy (which ITDOTN kind of is). I was so excited and my brother probably had an impressive bruise from me hitting his leg out of excitement when I clued in to the melody. It was a literal masterpiece.
After the sombre “Stay, I Pray You”, the passengers board the train which rotates (again, an impressive feat of this scene’s staging) and the screen behind it changes to show that they are in motion. Vlad starts reminiscing about Lily, the musical’s version of Sophie. Like in the film, Vlad had a former relationship with Lily/ Sophie, but the musical presents a more adult version. He says that she was everything he looks for in a woman: a countess, rich… and married. A new song begins with Vlad singing humorous lines about how he’s changed with gray hair (that makes him look distinguished, of course) and has gained weight and so forth. The song, We’ll Go From There has each of the main trio singing a part about their thoughts about going to Paris, and whatever reservations they hold. Vlad’s being more comical, while Anya and Dmitry’s being hopeful and nervous. The staging of this song (I know, but I have to say it again) is incredible. The train car rotated to feature each of the three characters as they moved to different parts of the train and then ends with them each saying their own parts of the song at the same time. It was really impressive and a great addition to the show.
The lighter mood changes again as the train stops and Vlad leaves to find out what it is, Anya and Dmitry share a brief moment where she asks him if he thinks she is really Anastasia. He answers rather vaguely… not really answering. Vlad returns saying they have stopped the train and are searching for someone, which is assumed to be Anya. They gather their things to get off, when a gunshot is heard and it is revealed that Count Ipolitov was shot.
When the scene changes we see the Vlad, Dmitry, and Anya walking through to a springtime scene with trees surrounding them. Anya speaks to someone asking how far to Paris, and they converse in French which Vlad comments is the language the Romanov’s often spoke as Russian was seen as too common, with a nudge to Dmitry. He then says that Anya will break his heart.
Anya joins them and says that Paris is just over yonder (my words, not hers haha) and Vlad runs offstage. Dmitry and Anya share another moment and he goes offstage as well after being called by Vlad.
Music starts, and an excited murmur runs through the crowd as the opening notes of “Journey to the Past” come from the orchestral pit. This is probably the most well known song from the 1997 movie and definitely the most celebrated. I believe it’s the one song from the movie that didn’t have any lyrics changed, (although Once Upon a December might have as well) with the one significant alteration being it’s placement in the plot. In the movie, “Journey To The Past” plays right after Anya leaves the orphanage and decides to “go right” when she comes to the fork in the road and go to St. Petersburg instead of left to the fish village where a job is lined up for her. She sings the song as she walks (accompanied with her new animal pal, Pooka) through the snow past other friendly animals and a family, until she gets to a cliff overlooking St. Petersburg.
In the musical, it occurs much later in the plot. Yes, girl-I-overheard-gasping and then saying “This isn’t where the song goes!”, they changed it up.
However, despite such a drastic change in placement, I found that it was even more effective here. As Anya is now well on her way in both the physical and metaphorical aspects of her journey, the whole “so close but so far” feeling is there and I think the song works really well there, moreso than right after skipping out on a job at the fish market.
After Anya leaves the stage (running to catch up with Vlad and Dmitri) the scene ends and the curtains close as the lights faded back on. For both intermissions I got Twizzlers (my one true love) and bottled water… which I tweeted about because I’m a weirdo.
— Adrianna Mary-Anne (@ehdreeahnah) May 18, 2016
Act II marks the second half of the show, with the entirety being set in Paris. The stage appears to be a Parisian street with people walking through it, and the music starts.
I’ll admit, my least favourite musical number in Anastasia is “Paris Holds The Key (To Your Heart)”, I always found it went on too long and I didn’t like the side characters being introduced and found that the transition from that song to the next scene was too abrupt. However, it was marvellously done in Anastasia the Musical.
The picture is a behind-the-scenes but I’m including it so you can see the costumes.
They added quite a lot to the original song, including specific introductions of all the famous characters. I know that when I was watching this as a kid, the only reference I picked up was Isadora Duncan (even though I knew quite a few of the actual people… I just didn’t know that they were the ones being referenced. I just thought that Paris had a lot of really eccentric people haha). So, for the musical’s version of the song to clearly make reference to all the figures (Josephine Baker, Pablo Picasso, Isadora Duncan, Ernest Hemingway, Django Reinhardt, Gertrude Stein, and Coco Chanel) not only allowed the sequence to be more understandable and enjoyable, it also provided an extra level of humour. During the song, a replica Eiffel Tower rolls out onto the stage for the characters to climb up, and this was one of the mishaps of the dress rehearsal. It didn’t move the way it was supposed to, so “cut” was yelled and everyone stopped and started again when they got the prop working. Overall it was a really well done and a huge improvement from the scene in the movie.
The scene changes to reveal Anya standing on a bridge with a painting of the bridge beside her. She sings a song, “Crossing a Bridge” where the symbolism of the bridge, not only in the fact that it is the bridge built for her grandfather and that her grandmother promised they would visit it, but also the metaphorical bridge in her life that she is about to walk over.
One of the frustrating moments in Anastasia is when the Dowager Empress vows she will see no more girls pretending to be her granddaughter as everyone watching the movie cries BUT ANYA IS COMING AND SHE IS ANASTASIA. Maybe not everyone. But definitely me. The next scene shows the musical’s answer to this. Lily (Caroline O’Connor) and the Dowager Empress sit and go through letters. These letters are from imposter Anastasias looking for the reward money. One says that if the trip from South America to Paris can be financed, the girl in question can prove she is Anastasia. Another nods to the fake Anastasia shown in the movie that results in the Dowager deciding “no more”. Another letter is addressed to “Grandmama” which is what Anya/ Anastasia calls her in the film, but in the musical she scoffs and says “Never Grandmama, only Nana!”. She then declares that the search is over and that Anastasia must be dead, asking Lily to leave her be.
“Close the Door” is a powerful musical sequence where the Dowager Empress expresses the pain of loss she has felt and that in order to block any more pain she must close the door to her past, effectively stating that she will close her door to any more Anastasias. At the back of the stage where there are glass doors you can see the six year old Anastasia from the beginning of the musical standing and reaching for the door, but at the end of the song where her grandmother refuses to let anyone else in, she walks away from the door and goes offstage. That alone was heartbreaking and powerful in that by closing the door to any more “imposters” the Dowager Empress is also closing the door on her real granddaughter and the potential to see her again, as well.
The next scene is at the Neva Club, a club where people assumed to be white émigrés, or people who fled (/were exiled from) Russia during the revolution. This sequence solidifies Lily as one of the best characters in the production. She is a wonderful mix of humour, crudeness, and just a huge larger-than-life personality. As she is the musical’s replacement of Sophie, it was interesting to note the changes. Sophie is a voluptuous (pretty sexualized) Frenchwoman who is (happily) involved with Vlad, whereas Lily is a petite sassy woman who, although having a past with Vlad, doesn’t take any crap. Which Vlad is full of. Both Lily and Sophie are said to be the Dowager Empress’ first cousin and lady in waiting. This whole scene was a blast to watch. The song, “Land of Yesterday”, has the patrons of Neva Club (led by Lily) remisicing about the “good ol’ days” of imperial Russia. This was a really cool scene featuring some traditional Russian dress and dancing.
The scene also has Gleb trying to get in but not allowed by the doorman. He’s lookin’ real shady. Gleb goes on a rant about how the patrons of the club are foolish rich people holding onto titles that don’t exist anymore and despite their fancy clothes they are overall, irrelevant without the monarchy.
“Land of Yesterday” ends with Lily realizing that Vlad has gotten into the club and joined in the song without her knowing (pictured above).
Vlad and Lily sneak off to a garden scene where they reveal their history together. “The Countess And The Common Man” was definitely the most hilarious part of the musical. Everyone in the audience adored it and it arguably got the most applause out of every song. Both Vlad and Lily are comical characters, but this is emphasized by Bolton and O’Connor’s unbelievable talents. It was very cheesy, but in the best way. We learn how Vlad used to sneak into court by posing as an official, while Lily would sneak off from her husband (stating, “he was clueless, as counts often are” which brought a lot of laughter from the crowd) so they could be together. This was obviously more mature than the relationship Vlad and Sophie had in the animated children’s film, but was hilarious and great entertainment. They definitely milked it more the second night as the larger audience brought more reaction and they went with it. It was really enjoyable, both nights.
The scene changes to one of Anya asleep in bed. She is having a nightmare, which is a nod to the film version dream Rasputin plants in her head on the ship in order to get her to jump off the side of the boat. In this one, her family is circling the bed, dancing as spooky music plays in the background. The dream ends with Alexei climbing on the end of the bed imploring her to remember.
Anya wakes up screaming and Dmitry runs in. He comforts her in a moment very reminiscent of the whole “I keep seeing faces, so many faces” part of the film after he brings her back from the edge of the ship.
She asks him again if he thinks she really is Anastasia, and he begins to tell her about an experience he had with the grand duchess (ah, here’s the replacement of him being the kitchen boy). “In a Crowd of Thousands” is a song where Dmitry tells Anya about a time when he was ten and the Tsar’s family was going by on a parade. He was living on the streets and spoke of how there were so many people (hence the name), but he squeezed through and caught a glimpse and the youngest grand duchess who smiled at him. He then urges Anya to tell the story as if it was from her point of view. She starts it the same was he does, comments on seeing a boy with a dirty shirt which gets a chuckle out of Dmitry and the audience, and then says how the little boy bowed to her. Dmitry is taken aback since he didn’t mention that, and then they realize this is her actual memory and that she is truly the grand duchess. The song continues as they sing together and it’s quite precious. After that line I pointed out from “Learn To Do It”, this had way more meaning and gave me total goosebumps. Dmitry saying that he once bowed to someone who turned out to have been Anya. That’s some serious fate stuff, my friends.
One of my favourite songs from the movie is the reprise of “Learn To Do It“, where Vlad sings while Anya and Dimitri are dancing. As they enter the gates for the ballet, Vlad watches the two go in together and sings “I Never Should Have Let Them Dance”, a bittersweet nudge to his earlier comment about how she will break Dmitry’s heart.
The ballet scene is beautiful (are you tired of me saying that yet?). Actually beautiful is an understatement. The stage is divided by Dmitry, Anya, and Vlad on one side and Lily with the Dowager Empress on the other. The ballet is Swan Lake, instead of it being Cinderella like in the film. It was pretty clear why the change was made, with Odette representing Anya, Prince Siegfried being Dmitry, and Von Rothbart being Gleb. Well played, team.
Anya, Dmitry, the Dowager Empress, and Gleb each have a song relating to their feelings at that point, Anya being that she sees the Dowager Empress, Dmitry’s being that he possibly has feelings for Anya, The Dowager Empress’ being that she sees Anya but she has given up hope, and Gleb’s being that if Anya is Anastasia she has to be killed. The songs are sung separately but then go together at the end as an insanely beautiful quartet. It was so impressive and amazing to watch. It ends with Gleb aiming the gun at Anya, but doesn’t shoot her.
After the ballet the next couple scenes are quite similar to the movie. Anya goes in to meet the Dowager Empress and Dmitry has a song called “Everything to Win”. Anya comes out, saying she never got to meet with her but found out that Dmitry was actually a conman who held auditions to find a girl to play Anastasia in order to trick the Dowager Empress and get the money.
While essentially it was the same thing that happened in the movie, I didn’t find it as effective since it was more vague in regards to how Anya found Dmitry in the first place and convincing her she was Anastasia, whereas in the movie it was more explicit… if that makes sense. Also since they had them moment regarding the parade, when in the movie only Dmitry had clued into her actually being Anastasia, it just didn’t have the same effect. This might just be my personal opinion.
In the next scene the Dowager Empress goes to Anya’s room to meet with her.
The scene was well done and you see a bit more of the attitude that both women possess. It starts with the Dowager Empress asking questions, to which Anya answers correctly, even the trick ones. Anya stops her and basically says that the questions are pointless… If you know, you know. They both say how they’re lonely and lost everything the day their family died and after noticing the music box they sing “Once Upon a December” and embrace.
The next scene is a press conference, the more realistic answer to the ball in the movie. People from the press are looking to get the formal announcement that Grand Duchess Anastasia has been found.
We then have a scene between Gleb and Anya where he points his gun at her saying he has to finish what his dad started and that regardless of anything, he is his fathers son. He asks who she is, so she could potentially deny everything but Anya basically surrenders saying, “I am Anastasia Nikolaevna Romanov. And I am my father’s daughter”. This was very powerful and the goosebumps were on full force. Something that made this scene exponentially more emotional was that behind the screen doors you see the royal family together, backing up as soldiers advance on them with musket/ rifle style guns, mirroring Gleb advancing on Anya with his handgun.
This is kind of irrelevant and nitpicky, but it kind of bothered me that she was referred to as Anastasia Romanov. Her title would have been Anastasia Nikolaevna, as her patronymic name (referring to her father, Nicholas. It’s used to determine lineage). It’s very Western to assume Nikolaevna is her middle name with Romanov as her surname. If Romanov was going to be attached in the use of her full name it would be “Anastasia Nikolaevna Romanova”. Using Romanov as her surname assumes she is a boy, which she is not. I think this is a fascinating aspect of Russian culture, and just makes my eye twitch when it’s ignored. Okay, obnoxious “Now You Know” sesh is over.
Gleb decides he can’t kill her, Anya shakes his hand and they part as comrades.
Anya looks for Dmitry at her grandfather’s bridge, flings herself into his arms saying, “I choose you, Dima” and kisses him. I teared up both nights.
They move to the back of the stage and link arms facing the back screen showing the bridge. The stage divides with the Dowager Empress on one side with the journalists and photographers from the press with Gleb on the other side with the Russian press around him. They alternate delivering the news story, corroborated by the other. They tell the press that there never was an Anya and that Grand Duchess Anastasia died that day with her family in Yekaterinburg.
Everyone seemed pretty shocked by this but I felt it was extremely clever. In light of Anastasia’s remains being found a few years ago the authority of the movie and whatever real life potential of Anastasia surviving, be it Anna Anderson or Anya or whoever else, went out the window. With this explanation given by Gleb and her grandmother, Anya was free to live a life with Dmitry while the whole world thinks she died with the others in 1918. I really liked this twist and thought it added a layer of ‘what if’ to the legend of Anastasia Nikolaevna, the lost Russian princess.
Leaving on the Friday night, I was sad that professional-Anastasia-The-Musical-audience-member is not a viable career path. Because I would be all over that. I’m really hoping that some kind of soundtrack is released so I can listen to it over and over again. Especially “My Petersburg”. Just so good. It’s taking a lot of self control not to put a whole bunch of emojis here to emphasize how much I adored it.
Congratulations to everyone who was a part of this show, it was truly beautiful and while honouring both the history and 1997 film, produced a true masterpiece. I am honoured to have seen it.
Beyond blessed that I got to see this masterpiece twice. From Vancouver to Connecticut (and then to Russia and Paris)… Thank you to everyone who made this #journeytothepast possible ❤️ #anastasiamusical #hartfordstage #bestbirthdayever
A photo posted by Adrianna Mary-Anne (@adriannamaryanne) on
Unfortunately the musical’s run at Hartford Stage has ended, but it is scheduled to appear on Broadway this coming season!
You can sign up HERE to be notified when tickets are available for Anastasia on Broadway… I definitely did!
Thank you so, so much to everyone involved: from the people in my life who supported my adventure to Connecticut, the staff at Hartford Stage, and the many talented souls behind the production itself. You are all incredible.
And another thank you… to you, for reading this post! If you would like to check out the prequel to this post (the half that occurred before walking through the doors of Hartford Stage, and why I got to see it twice) you can check that out HERE. I hope you enjoyed this little Journey to the Past (I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist).