Anastasia Delivers the Spectacle at the Orpheum

Kyla Stone as Anya Photo by Jeremy Daniel

I saw the the 1997 animated film of Anastasia in the movie theatre at the time of its release but to be honest, I remember very little about it. Not surprising as I haven’t seen it in nearly 25 years. This Broadway musical differs from the Disney model of animated films transferred to the stage in that, while yes it has its origins in the animated film, it really only uses that as a springboard on which they have built of mostly original work. They kept about six of the songs from the film and have added about twenty new songs. I remember the film had Rasputin in it, but the stage show has removed him as the antagonist. All that’s by way of saying, don’t come expecting the film transported to the stage, come open to a new telling of the legend of a lost princess of the Russian Empire. But whether you are a fan of the animated film or the earlier film starring Ingrid Bergman or not, you’ll probably have a great night at the theatre with this charming musical.

All of these stories are based on the story of Anna Anderson a mentally ill woman who claimed to be Anastasia. She wasn’t but those rumors persisted and thus we have these fantasies. In this version we see a young Anastasia and her grandmother, the Dowager Empress, at their last meeting. Anastasia is her grandmother’s favorite and she is given a music box as a parting gift. The Dowager Empress is leaving for Paris and talks to her granddaughter about seeing her therein the future. That visit is never meant to be, prevented by the outbreak of the Russian Revolution. Where it is thought that the Czar and all of his children were executed. But rumors begin that the princess Anastasia survived and her Grandmother has offered a reward if she is reunited with her in Paris. Two con men Vlad, who was once at court before the fall of the empire, and the young and handsome Dmitry cook up a plan to find a young woman they can pass off as Anastasia. They team up with a young amnesiac named Anya who is being drawn to Paris by memories she cannot quite recover. As Dmitry and Vlad begin to drill her on the facts of the Romanovs, they are surprised by the things she says that they hadn’t told her yet. As our trio heads off to Paris they must elude the new Russia personified by General Gleb. Glebs father as it turns out, was one of the soldiers who executed the Romanovs and his orders from above are to finish his father’s work. Along the way Dmitry begins to fall in love with Anya and also believes she really is the lost princess. But as Vlad points out, if the Dowager Empress believes she is Anastasia, Dmitry will never be able to see her again.

The cast does an excellent job with the songs and there are a lot of them. I frequently have a little trouble at the Orpheum understanding the lyrics, but that wasn’t the case tonight at all. The cast and the orchestra were perfectly balanced and all the performers sang with perfect clarity. Sam McLellan as Dmitry and Kyla Stone as Anya sell the burgeoning love of their characters particularly in the song “In a Crowd of Thousands”. Vlad played by Bryan Seastrom and his love interest Countess Lily who is the Dowager Empress’ lady in waiting played by Madeline Raube, have a great little song together “the Countess and the Common Man”. Raube in particular in that and in the preceding song “Land of Yesterday” shines with a great voice and the ability to play the humor in the lyrics as well. The strongest voice and performer in the cast though was Brandon Delgado as Gleb. He plays the villian, but a conflicted one who believes in his cause but also secretly loves Anya himself. He gets a great moment towards the end of Act I with the song “Still”.

The true star of this show though is the Projection Design by Aaron Rhyne. The set is basically some panels on which projections create the majority of the set. There was a three to four minute stretch at the beginning of the show when it looked like there was a technical malfunction happening. I was worried the show was going to be marred by red laser beams breaking through the backgrounds. But that cleared up and from then on the effects were really superb. I’m usually a little disappointed when I see a production is going to rely heavily of projection for it’s set design. I like my sets practical for the most part, but this show did an amazing job with it’s digital design. In fact, I wasn’t sure what I was seeing in the beginning until the technical glitch revealed the truth. The perspective graphics that come up at times are truly mind blowing. Anastasia’s book is by Theater Hall of Famer Terrence McNally with lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music Stephen Flaherty.

The show is marketed as if it’s another Frozen, but this isn’t for little kids. Older kids I’d say 12 and above depending on their interest level would probably enjoy it. The younger ones are going to get bored as there isn’t a singing snowman in sight. Also beware it does run about 2 hours and 45 minutes, so that should probably rule out taking anyone too young. Anastasia works great for adults though, don’t let the inspired by the animated classic fool you. It’s more historical romance than animated antics. The tour is in town through December 19th and there will be a special Kids Night on Hennepin event on Wednesday, Dec. 15 with a special 50% off ticket offer. For more information and to purchase tickets go to https://hennepintheatretrust.org/

The Band Visits the Orpheum in Downtown Minneapolis

The Band's Visit, 10 Tony Awards including Best Musical; A woman smiling among officer musicians

The Band’s Visit Music and Lyrics by David Yazbek and Book by Itamar Moses is a musical adaptation of the 2007 Israeli film of the same name written and directed by Eran Kolirin. I saw the film shortly after it hit video over a decade ago, much of the details are gone from my memory but I remember it being a small intimate film, about characters and their interactions. The musical adaptation has a similar feel. This is not a show filled with crowd pleasing dance breaks or large chorus numbers. It’s a quiet piece, many of the songs are about the characters inner lives, memories, philosophies and dreams. Many of the band members play their own instruments, as evidenced by the show they put on after the bows have been taken. I encourage you to stick around, it’s well worth it. Now on my night there were three understudies who performed including James Rana filling in for the lead male role of Tewfiq. Obviously, when you go to a show you hope to see the main cast, but things happen and while I can’t compare the cast I can say that the understudies did a great job.

The plot is simple the The Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra has been invited to come to Israel to play. Due to the accent of one of the band members they get on a bus going to Bet Hatikva a small town in the middle of the desert instead of Petah Tikvah where the cultural center is located. There’s not a bus until the next day so a local restaurant owner, her staff, and friends take in the band for the night. We follow the bands leader Tewfiq who spends the evening with Dina the restaurant owner. Haled, the band member whose accent has caused the wrong bus tickets to be purchased accompanies Papi one of the Cafe workers as a fifth wheel on a double date. Itzik, who was at the cafe when the band turns up, takes in another band member, Simon. This last band member we follow is thrown in with Itzik’s young child, Father-in-law and fed up wife. The ways in which each of these three group spends their time together is where the heart of it is. It’s a story about finding connections and understanding despite our differences. I think it really speaks to the universality of the human condition.

My favorite song was Omar Sharif, which is referencing one of the ways in which Dina and Tewfiq connected over their mutual love for traditional Arab music and movie quotes. It refers to a exchange of quotes from an Omar Sharif film. Aside from their personal connection for the characters it draws upon the history of film as a universal artform. It’s a well placed detail that helps accomplish the plays intent. Getting across to a large group of people, in a show that runs a mere 90 minutes, and switches between three main threads and a couple of minor threads as well, that revolve around a pay phone, anything subtle is kind of amazing. But that is exactly what The Band’s Visit does. It has a nice blend of humor running throughout but it’s the intimate connections and small scale interactions that make this a very special show. I was in my usual seats in the balcony, and I could pick up on the subtleties in the performances and the script. But if ever there was a show to upgrade to be within the first dozen rows, it’s this one. There are humorous songs like “Waiting” and “Nowhere” and “Papi Hears the Ocean”, and also beautiful songs like “Omar Sharif “, which has a lyrical aspect in music and lyrics. Then there are “Haled’s Song About Love” and “Something different” which blend both in places, while also bearing Dina’s hopes and desires.

The star of the show is Chilina Kennedy as Dina, she gets the most beautiful songs to sing. Her character is also complex, strong and in charge but also a little self destructive. Kennedy plays all aspects of the role with equal skill, whether it be humor, melancholy, regret, desire, nostalgia, jealous, or generous. The other star of the show is the set design by Scott Pask. It effortlessly transforms from a bus station into small desert city street then to an apartment or a roller skating rink. Tyler Micoleau did some really interesting effects with the lighting design. There were two scenes in particular that used really effective use of silhouettes of the characters, that added to the mood of the scenes. It’s easy to see why Plak was nominated for a Tony award and why Micoleau won a Tony for the lighting design. In fact, the show was nominated for 11 Tony Awards and won 10. Which is kind of amazing for a show that is small and intimate in a lot of ways.

The Band’s Visit is playing through Sunday December 15th at the Orpheum theatre in downtown Minneapolis for more information about the show or to purchase tickets please visit https://hennepintheatretrust.org/events/the-bands-visit-broadway-tickets-minneapolis-mn-2019/. Take my advice get as close up as you can, it’s worth the extra money. The Band’s Visit us a beautiful musical that succeeds by doing the opposite of other musicals instead of going big it goes small and in doing so it draws us in deeper into the inner lives of it’s characters.