“Let this be a sign. Let this road be mine.” Broadway’s Anastasia

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I’ve got a history with Anastasia. My mother and I saw the animated film in theatres in 1997, past the age of so-called social acceptability for a mother and son to go see an animated “princess musical.” Furthermore, we were both ugly crying within 15 minutes of the film’s opening, overtaken by the lush poignancy of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’ Broadway-ready score. Admittedly, we had been through about 15+ years of Faulknerian extended-family drama at that point, so we might have been raw nerves primed to lose our sh*t as an amnesiac Anastasia revisits the literal ghosts of her Romanov family past to the haunting strains of “Once Upon a December” as vocalized by the incomparable Liz Callaway.

A few months later, I decided to stage these bizarre, self-indulgent one-man cabarets on the campus of Wabash College (my alma mater where I was working as a development officer) and included both “Once Upon a December” and “Journey to the Past” among my selections, using other people’s lyrics to express my late 20s existential angst.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I also recall that my mother and I both thought the animated film – 20th Century Fox’ answer to Disney’s nouveau blockbuster classics like Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid – lost its way narratively when it turned master manipulator Rasputin into a nausea-inducing Maleficent knock-off with a comic relief sidekick bat Bartok, who would go on to star in his own series of wacky straight-to-video films. I’m not sure anyone would have predicted the Russian revolution and the tragic gunning down of the entire Romanov royal clan would eventually lead to a pile of Bartok the Magnificent DVDs in a Wal-Mart clearance bin one day. Ah, capitalism wins after all.

So, it was with a giddy heart and a heaping helping of trepidation that I entered Broadway’s Broadhurst Theatre on Wednesday evening, September 26, to view the Broadway hit reinvention of Anastasia. (Please note, the last – and only other – time I saw a show on Broadway was when I attended, alongside Frances Sternhagen’s daughter Sarah Carlin, Paul Simon’s legendary flop The Capeman. And, other than the company I kept, that show sucked.)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I’m happy to report that someone somewhere must have overheard that conversation my mother and I had 20 years ago (kidding!) and jettisoned the lousy script from the animated film and gave playwright Terrence McNally carte blanche to build a new narrative around the fantastic score. New songs have been added obvi – how else can they justify ticket prices starting at $160?! And the production values are absolutely to. die. for.

Costuming by Linda Cho is music box exquisite, and Alexander Dodge’s scenic design integrating flawlessly with Aaron Rhyne’s photo-realistic projection design is a gobsmacking wonder. I don’t know how they will tour this, but between the turntable at center-stage, the rotating flats of arches that outline everything from the Russian royal palace to communist bloc headquarters to Parisian nightclubs, and the breathtaking video projections that immerse the audience in a thrill-a-minute train ride or sweeping hillside vistas, I was in awe.

Curtain Call

Surrounded as I was by a sea of late-20-something women (all of whom were likely the little girls seated beside my mother and me when we saw the animated film), I stuck out like a sore thumb in the audience. And I didn’t care.

In its bumpy opening moments, the show seems JUST a touch theme-parkish, and it probably didn’t help that the woman playing Anastasia’s queen mother kept tripping over the hem of her Swarovski-crystal encrusted gown … and looking REALLY annoyed every time she did so. We are introduced to Anastasia as a child and the sumptuous excess of the Romanov family in a ballroom scene that is about as exciting as watching paint dry.

However, with a flick of digital magic and some ominous lighting cues, we are informed that the Romanov family has been summarily executed (hey, that’s a fun start to a family musical … if it worked for Bambi, I guess) and the littlest princess Anastasia may or may not have been killed alongside them. I must admit I wasn’t sure how they were going to pull that off. It’s kind of an important piece of set up. They did so tastefully and artistically and substantively, signaling straight away that there would be no singing and dancing bats in this interpretation.

We are then introduced to the adult Anastasia, now going by Anya, who seems to remember none of her upbringing. Unlike the animated film, doubt is placed in the audience’s minds whether or not she, in fact, is the grown-up Anastasia, though she sure does remember a lot of unusual details.

Christy Altomare is a crackerjack Anya, delivering the hit songs with aplomb but adding a contemporary agency to the character that is utterly refreshing. Whether or not Anya is a royal, she suffers no fools gladly. Borrowing liberally from the 1956 classic film starring Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brynner, McNally sets up a narrative where Anya/Anastasia must escape Russia and journey to Paris to meet her surviving grandmother the Dowager Empress (a luminous Jennifer Smith, filling in for Judy Kaye in our performance) to prove her lineage.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

She is aided and abetted by a couple of well-intentioned scalawags Dmitry (dreamy, zippy Zach Adkins whose soaring voice rattles the rafters) and Vlad (Broadway vet John Bolton whose confident ease and crack comic timing nearly carry the show). Of course, initially this duo is only interested in collecting reward money for “finding” Anastasia. In fact, they have set up a casting call to try and coach any young street urchin into the role. It’s like My Fair Lady-meets-American Idol. However, when they start to realize little Anya may in fact be the real deal (clue: remember that music box in the animated film? … it plays an equally important – and merchandisable – a role here), their common decency starts to shine through.

Narrative complications are provided not by an evil immortal magician who can remove his head at will (no Rasputin … yay!), but by a society in turmoil as the Soviet government wants nothing more than to squelch the Romanov legend and give power to the people. (Watching a show about how nutty Russians can be was … odd … in this current political climate, I must admit.) Max Von Essen (Tony nominee for An American in Paris) turns in a solid performance as conflicted military bureacrat Gleb (think Les Miserables Javert without all the scenery chewing) whose hunt for Anya/Anastasia propels our heroes forward.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Once Anya, Dmitry, and Vlad reach Paris in the show’s second act, Anastasia truly comes alive. The stakes are raised. There is a magnificent scene at the ballet where Anya and her grandmother circle one another to the backdrop of Swan Lake (think The King and I‘s “The Small House of Uncle Thomas”). And we are introduced to the Dowager Empress’ lady-in-waiting Countess Lily, who has a sordid past with Vlad. NewsRadio‘s Vicki Lewis normally plays Lily, but we were treated to understudy Janet Dickinson … and she was a MARVEL. The perfect blend of Madeline Kahn and Christine Ebersole. Lily’s role could be a thankless one in lesser hands. She’s pretty much saddled with expository responsibilities. Dickinson turned her two numbers “Land of Yesterday” and “The Countess and the Common Man” into absolute show-stopping barnstormers. If only the entire ensemble had her fire. I’d love to see this woman headline a show ASAP.

That said, on the balance Anastasia is a glittering gem of a musical, heartfelt and transporting with important messages about individuality, compassion, and family in all its forms. Unlike the animated film, the stage show fully embraces the historical underpinnings without losing the escapist fantasy of someone realizing that they just might be royalty. However, this is no rescue-the-princess throwback. Anastasia and the women surrounding her challenge the status quo, call the shots, and do their level best to overcome a world stacked against them. One step at a time. One hope, then another.

Anastasia is currently running at the Broadhurst Theatre. I bought my ticket for 50% off at TKTS. The musical is also launching its national tour. Don’t miss it.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“Have courage and be kind.” Disney’s Cinderella (2015)

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I’m sorry, but Helena Bonham Carter pretty much ruins any and every movie she’s in. Maybe she was good once. I can’t recall. As it is, she just seems like an inept community theatre actor with an inflated sense of self, horrid comic timing, terrible diction, and a propensity for bug-eyed mugging.

There I said it. I feel better (sort of).

Bonham Carter as the Bibbidi Bobbidi bad/boring Fairy Godmother is by far the worst thing in Disney’s latest live action fairy tale reboot Cinderella, directed by Thor‘s Kenneth Branagh. (No more Shakespeare for him, apparently – just Disney’s princesses and superheroes now.)

As you may recall, I loathed Tim Burton’s needlessly fussy, narratively obtuse, utterly tone deaf reinvention of Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, and Sam Raimi’s journey over the rainbow in Disney’s Oz the Great and Powerful was just as as clunky, misbegotten, and laborious. Disney’s last go-round at reinvention, Maleficent was marginally better, simply because they had the good sense to cast redoubtable Angelina Jolie (and her flawless cheekbones) as the titular fairy/witch/whatever. Maleficent was (at least) attempting to say something interesting about women’s rights, animal rights, human rights, even if it collapsed under the weight of far too-much overbearingly pixelated CGI chicanery. (Sidenote: the less said about the Nicholas Cage-starring The Sorcerer’s Apprentice the better.)

In Cinderella‘s case (Bonham Carter notwithstanding), Disney’s latest attempt to breathe flesh-and-blood life into two-dimensional fantasy gets more right than it gets wrong. Starting with Branagh, the Mouse House has stacked the deck this time with top-shelf talent that knows the best way to super-charge heartfelt whimsy is to bring a pinch of BBC-gravitas.

Branagh’s direction has a steady-hand, using an economy of scale (no overblown special effect sequences here) to re-focus audience attention on actors and story and emotion. (Crazy, eh?) He puts his faith in one supreme “special effect” and that would be Cate Blanchett as Cinderella’s sympathetically villainous stepmother Lady Tremaine.

Blanchett is clearly having a ball in her Joan Crawford-by-way-of-Dr.-Seuss acid green mermaid gowns, casting sparks from her cat-like eyes as the venom practically glistens from her ruby-lined, perfectly-spaced pearly whites. She leaps off the screen as an intoxicating blend of cartoon caricature and pungent pathos.

Does she have a moment or two where she could/should have dialed it back a bit? Oh yeah. Yet, when she and her stepdaughter (ably played by Downton Abbey‘s Lily James) have their final quiet-storm confrontation over one recently discovered (by Blanchett) glass slipper, all Blanchett’s scenery-chewing mishegoss to that point is validated. In fact, the film is worth viewing, if for no other reason, for that one scene, where Blanchett with a sidelong glance and a turn of phrase synthesizes the heartache and turmoil faced by women of any and all generations. Is Cinderella feminist? Maybe. Maybe not, but it sure is in that moment.

James is a fine Cinderella with enough pluck to offset the damsel-in-distress undercurrents that might make modern audiences otherwise blanch. Equally her match is Game of Thrones‘ Richard Madden as her subtly charming prince, a royal who is less polished perfection and more fellow lost soul. When they first meet cute in the woods, she compels him to see hunting as a horror, and I nearly yelped with joy. “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should,” she pleads. And he agrees.

The rest of the cast from wizened Derek Jacobi as the king to luminous Hayley Atwell (Agent Carter) as Cinderella’s late mother to Stellan Skarsgard as a scheming duke all acquit themselves nicely, though never quite rising above a pedestrian TV-movie-esque malaise that occasionally blankets the sluggishly humorless script. Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera bring da noise as stepsisters Anastasia and Drizella respectively. They are suitably loud and obnoxious, from their behavior to their Easter-egg-colored attire, and do the work required of them, though a touch more nuance couldn’t have hurt.

Alas, Bonham Carter brings the whole enterprise to a crashing halt during the sequence that should have been the brightest spot. Lifting Cinderella up with magic and hope and beauty and opportunity after she has been so cruelly bullied by her stepmother and stepsisters should be an effervescent, ebullient, and joyous moment.  In Bonham Carter’s mush-mouthed delivery, accented as it is with half-assed hand gestures and under-baked characterization, it’s a slog.

Furthermore, why did they choose not to make this a musical? There aren’t that many songs in the original animated version, and, even though Bonham Carter is a pretty hopeless singer, having that dopey song would have aided her immeasurably, I suspect.

Regardless, the film is sumptuously appointed with costumes and set design. I haven’t seen a movie this beautiful in years. And 90% of the cast gets it so very right. It’s not a great film. Much of it will be forgotten in the light of the next day (not unlike Cinderella’s famed pumpkin coach) but the message repeated throughout (as taught to Cinderella by her dying mother) to “have courage and be kind” is a lesson all of us need, all day every day, regardless our age, background, or station.

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Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.