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NY Theater Reviews

John Bolton and Christy Altomare/ Ph: Matthew Murphy

RUSSIAN PRINCESS

By BILL STEVENSON

A talented cast and great production value make this musical fun for kids and adults alike.

The latest musical aimed at girls is Anastasia, inspired by the 1997 animated movie and featuring music and lyrics by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, with a book by Terrence McNally. Yes, that’s the illustrious team behind the acclaimed musical Ragtime. Although Anastasia doesn’t boast any songs equal to the best tunes in Ragtime, it’s an engaging musical with great production value. It also features a talented, attractive cast that should appeal to most audiences – even if they don’t bring along a girl who dreams of being a princess.
 
The action starts in 1906 St. Petersburg, and we see little Anastasia (the cute Nicole Scimeca) with the rest of the Russian royal family in their palace. Soon it’s 1917, and the royals and other aristos are dancing at a December ball. Snow falls outside, and the stage resembles a giant snow globe. Then the partygoers hear gunfire, and the sky turns red. Anyone who knows anything about Russian history knows that the Romanov family will be executed. (Children may need a quick crash course in Russian history.) Moving ahead to 1927, in the renamed Leningrad, workers sing about the rumor that princess Anastasia survived and is in hiding.
 
One of them, young and handsome Dmitry (Derek Klena), has a scheme to pass off a young woman as the princess and receive a big reward. He and his pal Vlad (John Bolton) audition young actresses to pretend to be Anastasia. When they’ve almost given up hope, in walks Anya (pretty Christy Altomare). She’s a poor street sweeper with amnesia who has dreams that involve palaces. Hmmm, could she be the former princess?
 
It doesn’t really matter that even seven-year-olds in the audience can figure out that she is in fact Anastasia. Altomare has a lovely voice and shows it off in numbers like the Act One finale “Journey to the Past.” Klena also sings quite well. And it doesn’t hurt the musical’s box-office prospects that his charm and winning smile make preteen and teenage girls swoon. Even the musical’s villain, the commissar Gleb (Ramin Karimloo), is handsome. Karimloo (Tony nominated for Les Miserables) employs his rich baritone but is somewhat underused.
 
In addition to the three leads, the veteran Mary Beth Peil (Sunday in the Park with George, The King and I) shows that she still has a fine voice. She plays the regal Dowager Empress, who left St. Petersburg for Paris and presides over Russian society there after the revolution. Peil is wonderful and deserves a Tony nomination. So does Linda Cho, who designed Peil’s lavish gowns along with the other colorful costumes. Alexander Dodge designed the grand, imposing sets, and Aaron Rhyne did the excellent video and projection design.
 
Director Darko Tresnjak (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder) keeps things moving along. The sequence on the train to Paris is particularly well staged, making clever use of projections. The show could easily be trimmed by 10 minutes or so. On the other hand, none of the kids seated near me seemed restless or bored. Anastasia will definitely be a winner with girls aged five to 15. Their parents – and anyone who goes without kids – should enjoy this smartly staged musical too.