‘Anastasia’: ‘Bland’ new musical based on animated movie lacks luster of Russian royalty

The current Broadway season has seen many beloved films, such as “Holiday Inn,” and “Groundhog Day,” adapted to the stage as new musicals. On April 24, “Anastasia” joined that esteemed company after opening at the Broadhurst Theatre. Based on both the 1956 Oscar-winning film starring Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brynner and the popular, Oscar-nominated 1997 animated movie, the musical “Anastasia” centers on street sweeper Anya (Christy Altomare) who herself gets swept away to Paris by two conmen who want to use her resemblance to Anastasia, the lone survivor of Russia’s Romanov royal family, in order to swindle a large sum of money out of the Dowager Empress (Mary Beth Peil).

Featuring new songs by Tony-winning songwriting team Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens (“Ragtime”), who also wrote music for the animated film, and a book by four-time Tony winner Terrence McNally (“Ragtime,” “Master Class,” “Love! Valour! Compassion!,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman”), “Anastasia” also stars Tony nominee Ramin Karimloo (“Les Misérables), Derek Klena, John Bolton, and Caroline O’Connor, under the direction of Tony-winner Darko Tresnjak (“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder”).

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By and large, critics responded unfavorably to the stage adaptation of the “Anastasia” films. In one of its only overwhelmingly positive notices, Adam Feldman (Time Out New York) deems the “smartly adapted” musical “the richest and fullest family show to hit Broadway in years,” whose “fine craftsmanship will satisfy musical theater fans beyond the show’s ideal audience of teenage girls,” with special attention paid to the “elegant” Peil, the “superb” O’Connor, and the sumptuous costumes by Linda Cho. Although Linda Winer (Newsday) also praises many of the performers, including the “strong” Altomare, the “compelling and exquisite as always” Peil, and the “dashing” Karimloo, she complains that the “predictable” musical features a “vapid story that has absolutely no context.”

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Conversely, Ben Brantley (New York Times) diagnoses the production with a “troubling case of multiple personality disorder” because it “trembles nonstop with internal conflicts during its drawn-out two-and-a-half hours,” claiming that actors Bolton and Karimloo look “embarrassed” on stage, yet he compliments Altomare, who “commits herself to her part with melodramatic focus and a soaring pop voice,” and Peil, “whom it’s always nice to see, even in a show like this.” Similarly, Jesse Green (Vulture) faults the “serviceable” score of “singular characterlessness,” director Tresnjak’s “tonally schizophrenic staging,” and a “bland” book as the major missteps of the production, but also praises Peil as “the best thing in the show.”

Dish ‘Anastasia’ with theater insiders in our notorious forums

With such lukewarm reception, “Anastasia” will certainly have to sit out of the Best Musical race at this year’s Tony Awards. So too might Altomare, who despite some warm notices did not receive the type of acclaim that she needed to break into a competitive category poised to feature the likes of Bette Midler, Patti LuPone, and Christine Ebersole. Should one cast member from “Anastasia” reap a Tony bid, bet on Peil, the always-working theater actress who earned a Tony Award nomination back in 1985 for her performance in “The King and I.” Peil received many kind notices for her performance in “Anastasia” and the Tony nominating committee may wish to welcome her back into the awards fray after an over 30 year absence. Peil also appeared on Broadway early this season in the revival of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” so the committee might also want to acknowledge her strong work in both shows this season with one nomination for the performance she’s currently delivering in “Anastasia.”

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As for the show’s creative team, Flaherty and Ahrens will struggle to break into the Best Score category, for which they will be eligible because of the substantial amount of new songs they wrote specifically for the stage. After the divided reaction to his directorial work on “Anastasia,” Tresnjak will have to wait for another opportunity to contend for a second Tony, but his “Gentleman’s Guide,” collaborator Cho, who picked up her first Tony for her work on that musical, could contend again as her costumes were one of the oft-praised elements of this otherwise dismissed production. While the show’s libretto also took a beating from some critics, never rule out the legendary, Pulitzer Prize finalist McNally from Tony consideration, who last earned a nom for “The Visit” in 2015.

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Be sure to make your Tony Awards predictions. Weigh in now with your picks so that Broadway insiders can see how their shows and performers are faring in our Tony odds. You can keep changing your predictions until just before nominees are announced on May 2. And join in the fierce debate over the 2017 Tony Awards taking place right now in our theater forums.

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