Flipping the Fairy Tale: ‘Anastasia' Turns a Beloved Animated Film into a Serious Broadway Hit

Broadway's got a bright new star, and her name is "Anastasia."

The 1997 beloved animated movie has been transformed into a magical new stage musical, now open at the Broadhurst Theatre, with a much-improved book by Terrence McNally, added songs from the film's composers Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, and a star-making performance by actress Christy Altomare. 

Fans of the original 20th Century Fox flick (who call themselves "Fanastasias") will surely be satisfied with the offering, while those who skipped the cartoon should realize this isn't the fairy tale fluff they might have initially assumed it to be.

The legend of Russia’s Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna, the youngest Romanov princess, is still at the center of the piece, of course. In real life, she was slayed in 1917's Bolshevik Revolution along with her parents and four siblings — but "Anastasia" follows in the footsteps of the 1955 Marchelle Maurette play and 1956 Ingrid Bergman film by asking, "What if Anastasia secretly survived?"

We meet, then, Anya (Altomare) — an 18-year-old amnesiac orphan living in St. Petersburg, struggling to survive and desperate for refuge. Working with con artists Dmitry (Derek Klena) and Vlad (John Bolton), she's given an opportunity to pose as the long-lost Anastasia and make her way to Paris, where the her last surviving relative — the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna (Mary Beth Peil) — is waiting with a hefty reward.

There are a few obstacles along the way, though they're different here than in the film. The villains, evil sorcerer Rasputin and his albino bat sidekick Bortok, have both been smartly scrapped for the stage. In their place is a new antagonist Gleb (Ramin Karimloo), a revolutionary general who finds himself split between his unexpected love for Anya and his duty to her enemies.

The change is just the first of many made by McNally, who effectively infuses the time period's real-life politics into the show's plot. Here, characters sing about the painful aftermath of revolution, the longing of loss — even the complicated emotions of having to leave behind a homeland that no longer feels like a home. These modifications elevate the stakes at play, but also age the piece's target consumer. (I'd say most of the plot's intricacies would go over a young child's head, while "Anastasia" would now make a fitting date night for adults).

Ahrens and Flaherty have also added 16 new songs, keeping five of the movie's most-popular tracks including the haunting "Once Upon a December" and the Oscar-nominated "Journey to the Past." The "Ragtime" team have chosen the right moments to musicalize, and their score here sounds complete and full — one of the season's strongest. 

But the performances are really where "Anastasia" shines.

Altomare, whose singular previous Broadway credit was as the bride-to-be in "Mamna Mia!," is a revelation here. She gives Anya an instant likeability and spunk, and soars at the book's more emotionally vulnerable moments. Her voice — specifically in the showstopping "Journey to the Past," which closes the first act — is the sort of pure, perfect soprano that pierces the heart and warms the soul. 

Klena ("The Bridges of Madison County") is charming, with a voice as crisp in texture as his dimples. He and Bolton ("Dames at Sea") make a humorous duo, the latter bringing a well-needed lightheartedness to the show's second act, when he is reunited with Lily (the scene-stealing Caroline O'Connor).

It's hard not to love Peil — known for roles in TV's "The Good Wife" and "Dawson's Creek" — in the role voiced by Angela Lansbury in the film. Karimloo, meanwhile, paints Gleb as a complicated man. Though I wished McNally flushed out more of his motivations, the "Les Miserables" alum's silky smooth tenor is always a welcomed gift.

I'd be remiss not to address Aaron Rhyne's projections, used predominantly in Alexander Dodge's scenic design. They'll surely be the thing that divides audiences the most, with traditional theatergoers balking as the show's reliance on them for scene and setting. But while not always necessarily effective, I found the photorealistic images used throughout to be cinematic and transfixing.

Director Darko Tresnjak ("A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder") commissioned the piece for the Hartford Stage, where it premiered last spring. He keeps the action grounded and moving throughout the 2 hour and 30 minute musical, using the stunning 20-piece ensemble wisely. Costume designer Linda Cho's vivid and vibrant clothing here deserves a standing ovation all its own.

It may have taken 20 years for "Anastasia" to make its way from the screen to the stage, but this journey to the past has proven to be well worth the wait.

"Anastasia" at the Broadhurst Theatre (235 West 44th Street). Tickets: $69 - $189, via Telecharge.com or (212) 239-6200.

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