Review by Dom O'Hanlon
28 May 2016
Whilst stage adaptations of popular animated classics may not exactly be a rarity on the American stage, that magical quality required to make such a musical retain both the charm of the original source whilst at the same time bringing a fresh quality to the drama certainly is. Inspired by both the 1997 animated musical and the 1956 Twentieth Century Fox drama about the eponymous 'missing' Russian princess, Hartford Stage's new production, already slated to land on Broadway this season, manages to strike both an emotional cord and provide a necessary reason for its reinvented existence.
Rather than feel like yet another screen-to-stage musical, the hybrid model allows the historical complexities of both sources and the subject matter to be explored in a mature and culturally sensitive manner that heightens our interest in the myth of the Romanov dynasty and our wider fascination with Russian history. Gone are the film's childlike necessities, mainly the Disney-fied villain Rasputin and his wisecracking bat sidekick, and in comes some attempt to contextualise the story against the freshly liberated Leningrad. Packing in, exposing and maintaining this context is no mean feat, and the musical manages to stray away from the film's glossed-over account of history whilst simultaneously feeling accessible as a 'family friendly' musical.
Collaborating once again with book writer Terrence McNally, who comes fresh to the project, writers Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens repurpose elements of their pre-existing score that not only fleshes out the previous material but furthers both our understanding and human interest. McNally has a hefty task on his hands establishing the status quo and its ultimate destruction before the musical can really gain any speed, but director Darko Tresnjak provides the necessary fluidity for the backdrop to unfold. The book is at its finest during the more intimate moments, the scenes between Anya and her grandmother in particular capture McNally's skill as a dramatist, yet it still retains the quirkiness that kept the film upbeat.
That said, there's some work to be done in both acts to bind elements of the two stories together effectively enough in what can sometimes fall into a plodding linear narrative. Juggling Anya's journey alongside the emotional turmoil of her grandmother, the Dowager Empress, hiding out in Paris whilst numerous imposters claim to be her long-lost granddaughter is too neatly divided between the first and second acts. The comedic subplot involvement between the Dowager's personal assistant Countess Lily, a fiercely funny and hugely watchable Caroline O'Connor, and Paris' exiled Russian elite isn't consistently balanced, and act one could do with reminding us that the story is about two people finding each other rather than just the one.
Whereas the threat of danger in the animated film comes from Rasputin, the book now focuses on an Inspector Javert knock-off Gleb whose father committed the murders of the Romanov family, and finds himself consumed with finishing that task. The stakes never feel high enough, and as a one man band the danger never feels too real. Some scenes appear to be missing in his own narrative, and we're never quite sure how he meets Anya or becomes drawn into her story. As one man representing one of the most significant changes in modern history, he feels insufficient both as a character and a plot device.
Composer Stephen Flaherty is the master of musical storytelling, and once again his score suits both the time and context of the story. He has proven his ability to transport audiences to the Caribbean, turn of the century New York and Dublin, and here masters the ability to effectively conjure time and place. At one point his melodies blend with that of Tchaikovsky which if nothing else salutes the fact that he has found a sound that effectively paints a necessary visual picture that manages to span multiple locations and decades. From the haunting recurring lullaby that captures the Tsarist spectacle and excess to the lively jazz-age high kicking Paris, his work remains classic musical theatre with just the right level of pop kick. I would have liked some further distinction between the styles of music in new and old Russia, and of the new songs it is the character Gleb who feels short changed. Lynn Ahrens keeps her lyrics free from cliche but also allows them to enjoy an appropriate level of romanticism, excelling particularly in Anya's moments of stillness and points of reflection. The take home number "Journey to the Past" is effectively moved from the 'I Want' position to the act one closer, propelling the intensity forward and raising the stakes following the group's journey.
Staging wise, it's the smaller moments that stand out. The production numbers feel slightly strained, and never threaten to blow you away as well they might. Peggy Hickey's choreography has some lively moments, but these sadly never lift the show to the required knock-out standards that the songs have the potential to be. Trensjak keeps the pace consistent and juggles the variants in time and place well, aided by Alexander Dodge's scenic design which relies heavily on projection and digital enhancement. Whilst this works alongside the handsome physical set elements, a Broadway stage will require a greater sense of opulence to help it feel more appropriately tactile and ephemeral, although there is some beautiful work from Linda Cho's opulent costume design.
Christy Altomare is a fine match for the complexities of Anya's role and manages to believably portray her re-memory that remains vital to the overall narrative. Her clear and powerful vocals power through each of her numbers yet have enough grit to never feel overly saccharine. Derek Klena makes for a strong and charming leading man in a role that at times feels overly sanitised with scope for further backstory and development. He impresses vocally and is given sufficient room to test his metal. There's pleasing support from Mary Beth Peil as the Dowager Empress, but John Bolton's Vlad and Manoel Felciano's Gleb are too faintly sketched to really warrant investment and in the case of the former feel like an annoying barrier to the primary narrative.
This is a classy and beautifully realised production that fully warrants rediscovery and will fulfill a generation of fans who have grown up with the film, as well as those new to the material. At its very heart it boasts a highly established score from two of musical theatre's most important collaborators, and with some tightening could offer Broadway a sure fire family friendly hit.